Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Australian Romance Readers Convention 2009

The Australian Romance Readers Convention is going to be held in Melbourne from the 20th to the 22nd of February 2009 and as the title suggests, it's for romance readers. There will be an academic presence at the convention because on the programme there's the following:
Saturday 21 February (10.00 am - 10.30am) - Panel discussion: What academics really think about romance fiction— Glen Thomas, Toni Johnson-Woods, Jenny Brassel

Sunday 22 February - Concurrent session 3 (11.00am -12.00 pm) — Future of romance: Where to from here? Bronwyn Parry, Glen Thomas, Avon Romance representative, Other publisher reps tbc

Friday, October 24, 2008

Political Clarity

Sarah's over at Romancing the Blog today, discussing politics and politicians in romance (and also urging Americans to vote in the forthcoming elections).

The photo, of what I think is a rather elegant ballot-box, is from Wikipedia. It was taken in 2007 during voting in the second round of the French presidential election.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Challenging the Beauty Myth

In my last post I took a look at how some romances reinforce the beauty myth. Today I've chosen some examples of romances and, in the case of Austen, pre-cursors of the modern romances (Sarah's already made a good case why Austen's novels can be read as romances) which challenge the beauty myth.

Jane Austen - Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice

For me these two novels have always seemed to suggest that beauty is not an absolute but is "in the eye of the beholder" because in both cases once the hero who's doing the beholding falls in love, he considers his beloved beautiful even though he previously had doubts about her attractiveness.

Felix Moses
summarises the changes in Anne Elliot's appearance
When Anne and Wentworth first meet in Ch. 4, Jane Austen describes them as follows: "He was, at that time, a remarkably fine young man, and Anne an extremely pretty girl." When the engagement breaks up, even Anne's beauty is affected: "an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect" (Ch. 4). On his return after more than seven years, Wentworth is contrasted with Anne, who is no longer beautiful: "no; the years which had destroyed her youth and bloom had only given him a more glowing, manly, open look, in no respect lessening his personal advantages. She had seen the same Frederick Wentworth" (Ch. 7). However, as Anne gradually "learns" romance, Wentworth notices an improvement in her physical attractiveness: "she was looking remarkably well; her very regular, very pretty features, having the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind which had been blowing on her complexion, and by the animation of eye which it had also produced. . . . [Wentworth] gave her a momentary glance . . . which seemed to say. . . ‘and even I at this moment, see something like Anne Elliot again'" (Ch. 12). The fact that Anne has regained her former beauty is underscored by Jane Austen, when Lady Russell, a neutral observer, fancies in Ch. 13 that "Anne was improved in plumpness and looks" and hopes "that she was to be blessed with a second spring of youth and beauty."
Moses does not clarify whether the restoration of Anne's beauty is the cause or an effect of the restoration of Wentworth's love towards her. The following quotation, however, suggests that although happiness may have improved Anne's appearance, the real reason for the change of Wentworth's opinion of it is his change of heart:
"I was six weeks with Edward," said he, "and saw him happy. I could have no other pleasure. I deserved none. He enquired after you very particularly; asked even if you were personally altered, little suspecting that to my eye you could never alter."

Anne smiled, and let it pass. It was too pleasing a blunder for a reproach. It is something for a woman to be assured, in her eight-and-twentieth year, that she has not lost one charm of earlier youth: but the value of such homage was inexpressibly increased to Anne, by comparing it with former words, and feeling it to be the result, not the cause, of a revival of his warm attachment. (Chapter 23)
Rather than falling in love again because of her beauty, it is his love for Anne which causes him to consider her beautiful.1 I think this argument is strengthened by a comparison with Pride and Prejudice, in which Darcy at first describes Elizabeth as only "tolerable":
"You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.

"Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."

"Which do you mean?" and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me. (Chapter 3)
His opinion of her physical beauty is altered, however, by his growing appreciation for non-physical aspects of her personality (intelligence and playfulness):
Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley's attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness. Of this she was perfectly unaware; -- to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable nowhere, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with. (Chapter 6)
He is soon after "meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow" (Chapter 6) and by the end of the novel, having fallen in love with her, he is convinced of her beauty, as he makes clear in this exchange with Miss Bingley:
"I remember, when we first knew her in Hertfordshire, how amazed we all were to find that she was a reputed beauty; and I particularly recollect your saying one night, after they had been dining at Netherfield, 'She a beauty! I should as soon call her mother a wit.' But afterwards she seemed to improve on you, and I believe you thought her rather pretty at one time."

"Yes," replied Darcy, who could contain himself no longer, "but that was only when I first knew her; for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance." (Chapter 45)
I do wonder if there's any link between this process of coming to believe the beloved is beautiful and the recent finding that
Sexiness evolves according to what we see over and over. This mechanism, Winkielman noted in a statement, “accounts for cultural differences in beauty — and historical differences in beauty as well — because beauty basically depends on what you’ve been exposed to and what is therefore easy on your mind.” (Alexander)2
Perhaps once these heroes began to feel attraction towards their heroine's personality (her intelligence, wit, goodness etc) they look at her more often. Darcy certainly spends quite a bit of time staring at Elizabeth. The result is that he may be resetting his beauty ideal, so that whereas before he compared her (unfavourably) to society's standard of beauty, now her appearance is the standard by which he judges beauty.

Georgette Heyer - The Quiet Gentleman

Tania Modleski noted that
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger, Marxist art critic, screenwriter, and novelist, has discussed the way in which the display of women in the visual arts and publicity images results in
a woman's self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
(qtd. in Modleski 37)
The following passage from Heyer suggests that women's self-perception is also affected by the fiction they read. Drusilla Morville has fallen in love with the Earl of St Erth, but, having compared her own appearance to that of the heroines she's read about, she finds herself lacking:
a candid scrutiny of her own face in the mirror soon lowered her spirits [...]. She could perceive no merit either in the freshness of her complexion, or in her dark, well-opened eyes, and would willingly have sacrificed the natural curl in her brown hair for tresses of gold, or even of raven-black. As for her figure, though some men might admire little plump women, she could not bring herself to suppose that St Erth, himself so slim and graceful, could think her anything but a poor little dab of a girl. [...] 'Depend upon it, you are just the sort of girl a man would be glad to have for his sister! You don't even know how to swoon, and I daresay if you tried you would make wretched work of it, for all you have is common-sense, and of what use is that, pray?'
This embittered thought brought to her mind the several occasions upon which she might, had she been the kind of female his lordship no doubt admired, have kindled his ardour by a display of sensibility, or even of heroism. This excursion into romance was not entirely successful, for while she did her best to conjure up an agreeable vision of a heroic Miss Morville, the Miss Morville who was the possessor not only of a practical mind but also of two outspoken brothers could not but interpose objections to the heroine's actions. [...] 'You would do better to put him out of your mind, and return to your parents,' she said. 'No doubt he will presently become betrothed to a tall and beautiful woman, and forget your very existence. [...].' (229-30)
As with the self-surveying woman described by Berger, Drusilla is aware of the conventions surrounding female behaviour. In relating her reality to that of fiction, she perhaps reveals both the way in which so much of life may feel like a performance, and the way in which each of us may refrain from casting ourselves in a particular role if we feel we lack the correct appearance, temperament, or both. Drusilla believes she lacks the beauty she feels is required in a heroine, as well as lacking what we might now describe as the Too Stupid to Live tendencies that afflict so many heroines. Heyer, however, by making Drusilla the heroine of the novel, challenges us to accept a wider range of heroines and, as a result, to consider the possibility that we too may play the heroine in the drama of life.3

Heyer seems to be subtly suggesting that character and personality, rather than physical beauty, are the true indicators of a person's nature and that there is hope that this will be recognised and valued by those who have the intelligence to look deeper than surface beauty. Like the poster Whitney Calvert created for Love Your Body Day (it's the image at the top of this post), The Quiet Gentleman can be read as an argument for seeing a woman's true beauty as an amalgam of her intelligence, strength, love, generosity etc.

Jennifer Crusie - Anyone But You

I couldn't possibly omit Anyone But You from a list of romances which challenge the beauty myth. Crusie addresses the problem head on:
Max said [...] "[...] Women do not handle turning forty well."
Alex looked at him with contempt. "And you know this because of your vast experience in dating hundreds of women twice."
"No," Max said, sounding not at all perturbed. I know this because I'm a gynecologist. [...] Forty is when they start rethinking plastic surgery. [...] They look at magazines and see all those damn seventeen-year-old anorexics in push-up bras, or they go to the movies and see actresses with tummy tucks and enough silicone to start a new valley, and then they look at their perfectly good bodies and decide their sex lives are over." (158)
Crusie's heroine is forty, and despite all her concerns about her appearance her sex-life is just about to to be restarted most satisfactorily.

So, which romances would you add to the list?

1 Anne learned of Frederick Wentworth's initial negative opinion of her appearance thus:
after the Miss Musgroves had returned and finished their visit at the Cottage, she had this spontaneous information from Mary --

"Captain Wentworth is not very gallant by you, Anne, though he was so attentive to me. Henrietta asked him what he thought of you, when they went away, and he said, "You were so altered he should not have known you again." (Chapter 7)
The juxtaposition of his assessment of her and a description of his emotions towards her perhaps suggests that, as with his later, positive opinion of Anne's beauty, his negative opinion is at least partly the result of his feelings of resentment:
Frederick Wentworth had used such words, or something like them, but without an idea that they would be carried round to her. He had thought her wretchedly altered, and in the first moment of appeal, had spoken as he felt. He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill, deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. (Chapter 7)
2 Winkielman, Halberstadt, Fazendeiro, and Catty state that
our findings suggest that part of the preference for prototypicality arises from a general mechanism linking fluency and positive affect. This mechanism has been shown to contribute to several preference phenomena in psychology (Winkielman et al., 2003) and aesthetics (R. Reber, Schwarz, & Winkielman, 2004). From our perspective, prototypicality is simply one fluency-enhancing variable; others include repeated exposure, perceptual and conceptual priming, contrast, clarity, increased duration, and symmetry. This explanation of prototypicality preference does not rely on considerations of value for mate selection (Halberstadt & Rhodes, 2000, 2003). (805)
3 Heyer also has Drusilla examine whether masculine beauty has played too great a role in creating her love for St Erth:
Drusilla's heart was not untouched [...] it had crumbled under the assault of the Earl's first smile. 'In fact,' Drusilla told her mirrored image severely, 'you have fallen in love with a beautiful face, and you should be ashamed of yourself!' She then reflected that she had several times been in company with Lord Byron without succumbing to the charms of a face generally held to be the most beautiful in England. (228-29)
The implication would seem to be that although beauty may play a part in creating an attraction, it should not be the sole, or even primary, foundation for love.

The poster for Love Your Body Day was created by Whitney Calvert and can be found at the NOW Foundation's website.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hometown Cinderella and the Beauty Myth

October 15th 2008 is Love Your Body Day:
Do you love what you see when you look in the mirror?

Hollywood and the fashion, cosmetics and diet industries work hard to make each of us believe that our bodies are unacceptable and need constant improvement. Print ads and television commercials reduce us to body parts — lips, legs, breasts — airbrushed and touched up to meet impossible standards. TV shows tell women and teenage girls that cosmetic surgery is good for self-esteem. Is it any wonder that 80% of U.S. women are dissatisfied with their appearance?

Women and girls spend billions of dollars every year on cosmetics, fashion, magazines and diet aids. These industries can't use negative images to sell their products without our assistance.

Together, we can fight back.
It may help us "fight back" if we remember that
'Beauty' is not universal or changeless, though the West pretends that all ideals of female beauty stem from one Platonic Ideal Woman [...]. Nor is "beauty" a function of evolution: Its ideals change at a pace far more rapid than that of the evolution of species. (Wolf 12)
Susan Scott, having written a novel about "Barbara Villiers Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine, Duchess of Cleveland (1641-1709), and the most famous/infamous mistress of English King Charles II" observed that
As delighted as Barbara would be today to see her story in so many bookstores, I’m sure she would be horrified by her cropped, faceless portrait on the cover. I’ve mentioned here before that while my publisher wanted to use a real portrait of her, they felt that her much-vaunted beauty wouldn’t hold much appeal to modern readers. Tastes change. What was hot in 1660 ain’t necessarily so now, and today Barbara’s much-praised “languid eyes” look more drugged than seductive.
The beauty of Agnès Sorel, mistress of King Charles VII of France, may also go unrecognised by a modern viewer. Jean Fouquet is thought to have used her as the model for the painting of the Madonna and Child I've included here.

Given the force of the current ideals of beauty, modern women considered lacking in beauty may not stop to consider, or may not even know, that they might have been considered beautiful in other cultures/other historical periods. In addition, as Naomi Wolf has observed, it is difficult for a woman to reject negative judgements about her beauty
because "beauty" lives so deep in the psyche, where sexuality mingles with self-esteem, and since it has been usefully defined as something that is continually bestowed from the outside and can always be taken away, to tell a woman she is ugly can make her feel ugly, act ugly, and, as far as her experience is concerned, be ugly, in the place where feeling beautiful keeps her whole. (36)
In Victoria Pade's Hometown Cinderella the heroine had last met the hero when she was, in his words, "Sixteen years old and as ugly as a mud fence" (29) and "He'd figured that it served her right, that it was a warning of what was below the surface - foul on the outside, foul on the inside. It had seemed fitting" (26-27). Now that Eden is neither sixteen nor ugly, he wonders "if she also wasn't the rude, mouthy, insulting, aggravating nightmare she'd been before either" (29). In this novel, Eden's ugliness made her, as Wolf would put it, "act ugly," and her external, physical transformation and her internal, emotional transformation seem to have gone hand-in-hand. Now that there is "no reason she would be called names or taunted or teased or tormented [...] she didn't have to go into any situation armed for those kinds of battles" (14).

The romance genre has a mixed history with regards to how it depicts female beauty. Sometimes, as Wolf says, it forms part of a tradition of
Women's writing [...which] turns the [beauty] myth on its head. Female culture's greatest writers share the search for radiance, a beauty that has meaning. The battle between the over-valued beauty and the undervalued, unglamorous but animated heroine forms the spine of the women's novel. It extends from Jane Eyre to today's paperback romances, in which the gorgeous nasty rival has a mane of curls and a prodigious cleavage, but the heroine only her spirited eyes. (60)
I'd like to take a look at examples of romance novels which explicitly counter the beauty myth but I thought I'd leave them until next week because today I'm going to examine a couple of novels which embrace the beauty myth. The myth "tells a story: The quality called "beauty" objectively and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it" (Wolf 12).

At times the genre can be harsh in its portrayal of women who do not conform to beauty ideals. Barbara Cartland's novels, as far as I can tell, generally feature hyper-slender young beauties as heroines. Her The Unknown Heart is slightly different. Close to the beginning of the novel there is a hyperbolic description of an obese body which depicts it as monstrous and grotesque to the point where it seems to me to be more a manifestation of the terror and fear that some people have of fat, than a realistic description. It may be interesting to note at this point that one of the symptoms of anorexia is that "there is a distortion in how the individual perceives their shape and size, with an excessive investment of their self-esteem in this, and an intense fear of being 'fat'." The heroine's mother exclaims
'Look at yourself! Take a good look!' Mrs. Clay said cruelly. 'And then find me the man who would marry you for anything but your fortune. Look! Look at yourself for what you are!'
Almost as if she were mesmerised into doing what her mother commanded, Virginia stared into the mirror. She saw her mother, thin almost to the point of boniness, with a small, elegant waist [...] a handsome woman [...] Then she looked at herself: small - hardly up to her mother's shoulder - and bulging with fat until she appeared utterly grotesque. Her eyes were lost in rolls of pink fat which puffed out her cheeks and gave her a number of double chins which almost hid her neck. Her balloon-like arms showed through the thin net of her sleeves; her hands, which went almost instinctively towards her face, were red and podgy.
She barely had a waist and in circumference she was three times the size of her mother. (12)
Soon after this, all the food Virginia had been forced to consume has "converted what was naturally a strong young body into a monstrous mountain of unhealthy flesh. Not only could your heart not stand the strain, but the poisons rose into your brain" (29) and gave her a "brain-fever" (29). When Virginia finally awakens from a coma which lasts "one year and two months" (35) she has been transformed into "a girl with very large eyes in a thin, pointed face. The cheek-bones were accentuated, the jaw-line sharp against the long neck" (32). Quite how, in a novel set around 1902, Virginia could have been kept alive while in a coma for this length of time is never fully explained, and again this creates the impression that Cartland's description owes less to reality than to attitudes towards fat and beauty. The near-death experience is presented as a positive one because it is only with a thin body that Virginia gains the love of the hero, and he comments on it admiringly: "'You are as light as the proverbial feather [...] It is not fashionable to be so thin, but you make every other woman seem fat and clumsy" (108). One can only hope that Cartland's exaltation of thinness didn't contribute to making any readers feeling "fat and clumsy" but it certainly reinforces the prevailing cultural attitudes about fat and women's bodies.

A real-life example of a woman who experienced her near-death experience as at least partly positive because it made her thinner and thus more beautiful is provided by Jennifer Crusie who has described how
In 1983, as a single parent with an eight-year-old daughter, I was diagnosed with late stage colon cancer and given roughly six months to live. Through the surgeries and stress, I dropped down to pre-college levels, ten pounds below my recommended weight, and I was thrilled. I was dying, I was leaving a child behind, I was terrified and angry and exhausted and in pain, but by God I was THIN. I wore a bikini in September. Just my luck that my last six months were going to be fabulously thin and they were all in WINTER. [...] My world was being ripped out from underneath me, but I was dying svelte.(emphasis added)
The transformation of the heroine in Pade's Hometown Cinderella is nowhere near as dramatic as that in Cartland's novel, but Hometown Cinderella also seems to suggest to the reader that a woman must either be, or become, beautiful if she is to catch a man. Although I'm singling this novel out for detailed analysis as a recent romance which perpetuates the beauty myth, it should not be seen as an isolated example.1 I have chosen it primarily because I read it recently and because its message about beauty jarred in a way that RfP has described:
Very stylized and didactic novels can jar me with how far they are from how I see the world. It's one thing to read about a fictional character's world and values, but something else to absorb the message that every woman should want to be her, be attracted to the same type of man, or want the same type of relationship. Some of that response originates with the reader, but surely some is about tone and specific messages.
There is something rather didactic about the way in which Pade describes Eden Perry's appearance, and the tone is one which takes for granted the reader's acceptance of particular beauty ideals. The benefits of being beautiful are made clear: everyone that Eden meets when she returns to her hometown seems to have an opinion to offer about the way she looks and "certainly it was a boost to her self-esteem to have everyone exclaiming over the improvements in her appearance" (113).

At high school Eden was considered ugly, the "geeky, braces-on-her-teeth, glasses-wearing, frizzy-haired, flat-chested brainiac in a grade she might have belonged in academically, but certainly hadn't belonged in socially" (11) or, as Cam Pratt, the hero recalls, as a teenager she'd had
hair that had been such a bright orange and so stick-out everywhere curly that it had looked as if it belonged on a clown wig, glasses as thick as the bottoms of mayonnaise jars, braces imprisoning crooked teeth, bad skin and a body that had been as flat as a pancake with only knobby knees and pointy elbows to give her any shape at all. (26)
Now that she's an adult:
lo and behold, the geek was gone.
No more braces - her teeth were completely straight now.
No more glasses - contacts had replaced them a decade ago and eye surgery had removed even the need for those more recently, so her ice-blue eyes were only adorned with mascara.
Her skin had cleared; in fact, there wasn't a single blemish or red mark marring it. Instead it was smooth and creamy and even-toned with just a little blush to brighten it. [...]
Her bustline had developed - there was no question that she was female now, she could fill out a bra with the best of them. Well, with the best of the B-cups, anyway.
Her hair had darkened to a burnt-sienna red - no one had called her pumpkinhead in fourteen years. And the relaxer she used eased the kinky curls into mere waves that she could keep manageable at shoulder length.
So, all in all, no, she wasn't odd-looking anymore. There was no reason she would be called names or taunted or teased or tormented. (13-14)
What really jarred me was the extent to which female beauty was depicted as being quite literally a construction. It's possible that Eden's eye surgery and tooth straightening were necessary for reasons beyond the merely aesthetic, but the fact that the alterations are judged to have improved her appearance sets a very clear standard for beauty and seems to legitimise the altering of the body should it not conform to that standard. To be beautiful, it seems, we need to have "completely straight" teeth, eyes which are not obscured by glasses, and a prominent bust which will permit us to "fill out a bra with the best of them." It's worth noting here that after they first meet as adults, even as Cam notes that her "body was better than it had been," he observes that it wasn't "centerfold better, but definitely better enough" (28).

Altering the body to make it "better," particularly through surgery of the kind which would be required by a woman whose small breasts didn't allow her to "fill out a bra with the best of them" or by a woman who wants to look "centerfold better," can be risky. For those who want to lose rather than gain flesh, and who can't stay in a medically implausible coma like Virginia's, cosmetic surgery offers the option of liposuction, of which the FDA notes that
In order to understand the size of the risk, one paper compares the deaths from liposuction to that for deaths from car accidents (16 per 100,000). It is important to remember that liposuction is a surgical procedure and that there may be serious complications, including death.2
Cosmetics aren't without their risks either:
the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics—a coalition of environmental, health, and women’s advocacy groups—had 33 name-brand lipsticks tested at an independent laboratory. The results were unsettling enough to wipe the glossy grin off anyone’s face: Fully one-third contained lead at levels exceeding the FDA’s 0.1 ppm (parts per million) limit for candy. [...]

The European Union has banned 1,132 known or suspected carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxins from use in cosmetics, but only 10 such chemicals are banned in the United States, leaving us with mercury in mascara, petrochemicals in perfumes, and parabens in antiperspirants. And just as none of the offending lipsticks’ labels indicated the presence of lead, the FDA allows potentially hazardous chemicals like phthalates—industrial solvents linked to birth defects in boys’ reproductive systems and premature puberty in girls—to slip into ingredient lists under the umbrella term “fragrance.” 
In Hometown Cinderella, however, non-use of cosmetics is linked to patriarchal oppression since Eden's grandfather, a dour retired minister of the church who believes that "men are the rulers of the earth, women should know their place" (86) imposed a "no-makeup restriction" (82) on his wife.

The reader is given lots of detail about Eden's use of cosmetics. For example, late at night, before asking Cam for
help with her electrical outage, Eden decided that if she was going to have to be seen, she had to make sure she wasn't too unsightly [...] If she'd been about to meet up with anyone other than Cam Pratt she probably would have gone as she was - face scrubbed clean, hair stuck in an untidy ponytail. Only she wasn't meeting up with anyone else and she just couldn't go without reapplying blush and mascara. (38)
When attending a wedding she "added a taupe-colored eye shadow to her blush and mascara regimen [...] she'd been pleased with how she'd looked and had left home feeling comfortable and confident" (60). When Cam, who has spent all day with her, pops out to buy a pizza, Eden seizes the opportunity to "head for the bathroom to take her hair down [...] so she could run a brush through it. She also refreshed her blush and added lip gloss" (80-81). On another occasion she yet again makes "a speedy bathroom stop to fluff her hair and apply a little lip gloss" (114) and when she makes a decision to seduce Cam she applies "a hint of eyeliner, mascara, blush and her best lip gloss" (234).

However, even if a woman temporarily achieves the pinnacle of seductive beauty, she knows that she will age. Eden is perhaps more aware of this than most women because of her job: she's a forensic artist who's been "hired to do an age-progression" (8) of the face of a woman wanted for questioning by the police in relation to a very old case. Since the woman in question is Eden's grandmother, Celeste, when Eden discovers that Celeste has put on
"At least fifty - and maybe seventy-five - more pounds? Celeste really did gain," Eden marveled. "That takes her out of the fluffy-grandma-body and puts her into a whole other weight category."
"It would make her pretty big," Cam agreed.
"And because we share the same genes, I guess I won't have another cookie," Eden said [...].
Cam laughed [...] "I don't think you have anything to worry about," he said with enough appreciation to please her.
But still the thought of a grandmother who could be very large made her decide against any more cookies and instead she stood, brought a dish of sugar-free mints from the kitchen and popped one of those instead. (150)
And is there a racial aspect to the beauty myth? Is it just a coincidence that Eden's eyes are "ice-blue," her skin is "smooth and creamy" and her hair is now free of "kinky curls"? If "kinky curls" make a woman look "odd" and if "stick-out-everywhere curly" hair is associated with "clown wig[s]" the conclusion one might reach is that many black women naturally have "odd" hair, which looks like a clown wig.3 As The Angry Black Woman observes, there are many issues other than aesthetics hiding beneath the beauty myth:
If you don’t think that black people’s hair isn’t a battleground for issues of race and culture and assimilation and bigotry, you haven’t been paying attention to the news. When a U.S. Congresswoman can be called names because of her hairstyle (or lack thereof) and people can be denied/fired from jobs for not wearing a hairstyle that makes white people feel comfortable, there is a serious, serious problem.
More subtle, though, is a pervasive feeling of never being good enough. As Latoya Peterson writes:
In discussions of beauty - particularly those on women centered blogs - white women can understand being held up to an unrealistic standard of beauty. To be impossibly thin, impossibly blonde, impossibly clear skinned, with a body that defies the law of physics is presented as something that is attainable if you try hard enough and buy the right products, though many women find these efforts to be futile. What most of these conversations do not understand is that when black women pick up these kinds of magazines, or watch advertisements on TV, or popular television shows with popular white actresses, we do not get the message “try harder.”

The message we receive is never.

You will never look like this. Not if you straighten your hair, or lose weight, or work out every single day, or have the perfect body and the perfect wardrobe to match. Even if you fit all those requirements, you’re still “pretty for a black girl.”
The financial incentive to perpetuate the beauty myth and keep women of all races unhappy about their appearance is obvious when one considers the interests of the cosmetics, dieting, fashion and plastic surgery industries. The result, according to a YWCA report, is that
Every woman in the United States participates in a daily beauty pageant, whether she likes it or not. Engulfed by a popular culture saturated with images of idealized, air-brushed and unattainable female physical beauty, women and girls cannot escape feeling judged on the basis of their appearance. As a result, many women feel chronically insecure, overweight and inadequate [...]. Moreover, the diet, cosmetic and fashion industries are often too willing to exploit these narrow beauty standards so women and girls will become cradle-to-grave consumers of beauty products, cosmetic surgery and diet programs.4
Ironically Dove's recent "real beauty" campaign, which partially challenges the beauty myth, nonetheless illustrates this point:
Unlike most mass media images of beauty that we see, the Dove campaign includes women of colour, women over 40 and women who weigh more than 100 pounds. The campaign has won accolades for its social conscience, including in the feminist pop culture magazine Bitch.

However, there is a contradiction in this “Campaign for Real Beauty”. While the website and the ads are of “real women” who are proud of their “real curves,” the actual goal of the campaign is to convince women to buy “Dove Firming”: a product designed to reduce the appearance of cellulite in two weeks. [...]

Although the campaign presents more realistic role models for women than is the norm, the central message remains the same. Beauty is not something that comes naturally to women: it requires endless effort, as well as the purchase of various products designed to change or hide women’s problem areas. (Esmonde)
The financial aspect of the beauty industry helps to explain why it has been expanding to target men, too. Wolf's book was first published in 1990 and in it she warned that "Advertisers have recently figured out that undermining sexual self-confidence works whatever the targeted gender [...] advertising has begun to portray the male body in a beauty myth of its own" (288-89).

Hometown Cinderella perpetuates a muscular beauty standard for men. This may, to a certain extent, eradicate the inequality between the sexes with regards to the relentless pressure to become and remain beautiful, but it does so by putting more pressure on men. In addition, male beauty remains firmly associated with muscular power, whereas feminine beauty is associated with a slim, youthful appearance. Jane at Dear Author recently observed that
Romance alpha males are physically overpowering. In one Brenda Joyce book, the hero is described as having a “huge club-like manhood,” and a “slab” of pecs. In the last JR Ward book I read, John is described as needing “a fleece the size of a sleeping bag, an XXXL T-shirt, and a pair of size-fourteen Nike Air Shox.” In the recent Diedre Knight book, Red Fire, the hero was an ordinary 5′ 7″ until his immortal transmogrification when he became “between six-foot-four and six-foot-five. Depend[ing] on the day . . . A variety of factors.”
The disparity between heroic heights and that of the average size for men in various countries was noted by RfP. Cameron Pratt isn't a vampire or other paranormal creature, but the connection between size, muscle power and super-heroic power is mentioned explicitly in Hometown Cinderella. Eden fears that because he has "powerful pectorals [...] bulging biceps [...and] jaw-droppingly impressive shoulders" he may be "A magnificently muscled man of steel who might not technically think of himself as a super man" (93) but who nonetheless considers himself to be nearly "invincible. Indestructible" (93). Luckily Cam is aware that despite the physique that so impresses Eden, he's not endowed with paranormal or super-human abilities.

Cam's size and physical power are emphasised throughout the novel. Even as a teenager he'd had a "body that had been buff" (93) and he was considered "hot stuff [...] The guy every senior girl - except Eden - had wanted to end up with" (10) but he "had somehow matured into a more colossally handsome specimen than he'd been the last time she'd seen him" (15, emphasis added). Later, looking out of her window and into his gym, she catches
a glimpse of him from behind, reaching long, well-muscled arms upward and grasping the bar [...] in his huge hands. [...] he was in very, very good shape [...] Her eyes lingered on that back. On those biceps flexing, bulging within glistening skin that seemed barely able to contain them [...] The man had stamina [...] and strength and a fabulous physique that she had some kind of irrational urge to get closer to. To touch. To test for herself if those muscles were as solid and unyielding as they looked.(32-33)
This isn't a one-off description. When Cam "rolled his massive shoulders," for example, it makes Eden's "eyes nearly pop out of their sockets to see it" (86), and she follows him from the room with "her gaze glued to the rear view of shoulders that were a mile wide and looked as if they had the power to easily carry sacks of cement" (87). When his "bulky arms and thick thighs had been all pumped up [...] he'd looked so sexy she'd hardly been able to breathe" (134). In fact, his body with its "supreme derriere" (167), "rock-solid chest" (193), "iron-hard rod" (197), "Glorious, glistening broad shoulders; pectorals taut and cut; narrow waist and tight abs" (198), "big hands" (216) and "massive thighs" (240) is a frequent focus of Eden's attention. There's no question that Cam's muscled body is one that Eden finds almost irresistibly attractive.

Men are catching up with women in their levels of dissatisfaction with their bodies:
One of Britain's leading eating disorder experts says as many as one in five young men are deeply unhappy with their body image.

Dr John Morgan said that for every man with an eating disorder there were 10 more who desperately wanted to change the way they looked. [...] Dr John Morgan said he believes images of male beauty in the media are part of the problem, and that there's now just as much pressure on young men to look slim as there is on women.

"The ideal male body image has changed into quite an unhealthy shape," he admitted.

In the past blokes have been comfortable with beer bellies. Now, men and boys are under huge pressures to look good."

He explains that while the slim but muscular look, a six-pack, big arms, and a slim waist, has become the cultural 'norm', it's not a naturally obtainable figure.

Dr Morgan added: "It's completely unhealthy, and to achieve that sort of shape you've got to be either working out for hours in a gym, making yourself sick, or taking certain kinds of illegal drugs." (BBC)
It seems a good time to stop and think about how some aspects of the romance genre perpetuate virtually unattainable beauty ideals for both men and women, why they do this, what the effects of the beauty myth are, and who really benefits.

1 For example, Tumperkin wrote a review of Julia James's The Italian's Rags-to-Riches Wife in which she observed sarcastically that despite the heroine being transformed into a beauty
there's a Big Mis that sends Laura hurtling back to England to defiantly regrow her eyebrows. Alessandro is presented with an horrific tableau when he rings her doorbell:

...She'd reverted. It was the only word for it. Her hair was hanging in lank soggy rags around her face, she wore no make up, her eyebrows were overgrown, her skin blotchy...

But no-one can accuse Alessandro of being shallow. Although he's disgusted when he sees her again, he's able to overcome his nausea. So long as he keeps his eyes shut
2 Serious complications and even death can also occur as a result of other forms of plastic surgery:
Surgery can never be easy or risk free - even when the patient can afford the very best care. [...] Kanye West lost his mother, Donda, who apparently developed complications following a tummy tuck and breast reduction. Donda was 58, a former professor of English who had given up a 31-year tenured post to manage her son's business affairs. Stella Obasanjo, the first lady of Nigeria, died in 2005, aged 59, after a tummy tuck in a Spanish clinic. James Brown's third wife, Adrienne, died in 1996, aged 47, following an undisclosed cosmetic procedure. In 2004, Olivia Goldsmith, author of the First Wives Club, suffered a fatal heart attack at 54 as she was being prepared for a chin tuck. (Kleeman)
Women also seem to be seeking surgical alteration to an increasing number of body parts and undergoing operations on which little research has been conducted:
A leading urogynaecologist has spoken out against the growing popularity of cosmetic vaginal surgery.

Professor Linda Cardozo, of King's College Hospital, London, says little evidence exists to advise women on the safety or effectiveness of procedures.

These include operations to make the external appearance more "attractive" and reshaping the vagina to counter laxity after childbirth, for example. (BBC)
3 Some of the clown wigs available for sale here and here are explicitly described as Afros.

Betty Friedan once asked concerning the feminine ideal of the fifties and early sixties
Why is it never said that the really crucial function, the really important role that women serve as housewives is to buy more things for the house? In all the talk of femininity and woman’s role, one forgets that the real business of America is business. But the perpetuation of housewifery, the growth of the feminine mystique, makes sense (and dollars) when one realizes that women are the chief customers of American business. (181)
As Wolf observes
Feminists, inspired by Friedan, broke the stranglehold on the women's popular press of advertisers for household products, who were promoting the feminine mystique; at once, the diet and skin care industries became the new cultural censors of women's intellectual space, and because of their pressure, the gaunt, youthful model supplanted the happy housewife as the arbiter of successful womanhood. (11)

I found the photo of the Madonna in Fouquet's Melun Diptych at Wikipedia. I feel compelled to add one final comment on Hometown Cinderella, which is that the sex scenes include some interesting phrases. One of Eden's breasts is described as a "smallish globe of yearning" (162) which Cam then starts "working [...] like a fragile mound of clay, kneading, lifting, pressing into it. Then he located that tightly knotted crest with his fingertips, tugging, tweaking, pinching, rolling it" (162). I suppose it's not completely unrelated to the topic of the post, since the globe is "smallish" and the metaphor of it as a "mound of clay" might, at a stretch, be taken to indicate the malleability of the female body.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Romance in the Wake of Jane Austen

On Saturday evening, Eric Selinger, Pamela Regis, Mary Bly/Eloisa James, and I presented a panel on popular romance fiction for 2008 Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, held in Chicago.

First, I have to say how wonderful the whole conference was. Maggie Sullivan blogs about it on AustenBlog (1, 2, 3, 4). My dear friend, William Phillips, did a fabulous job as Program Chair (and congratulations to him on his marriage last month to his partner of 32 years!). I especially liked the addition of Poster Sessions (of which Sullivan presented one!), but the Breakout Sessions and the Plenary Sessions were wonderful, and the Ball was beautifully organized and pulled off. Kudos to everyone on the organizational committee!

Our panel ran the same time as the Regency Ball. Not everyone goes to the Ball, after all, and previous concurrent sessions have done well. As I basically strong-armed William into letting us have the panel in the first place ("What do you mean you're running an entire conference on Jane Austen's Legacy and you don't have anything on popular romance fiction?!?!?!"), I was very happy with our placement. As such, with 650 conference attendees, I planned for 150 people at our panel (150 handouts, 160 free books), but hoped for about 100.

I tried to count the chairs in the room: probably about 220. It was standing room only. Over the course of the two hours we were there, we must have had 250 there, maybe more. Maybe they were lured by the free books. Maybe they were just curious. But they were there and they learned about popular romance fiction, and that's what's important.

William introduced us and I began the panel discussing why there was a panel about romance novels and about "Myths about Austen" and "Myths about Romance." Yes, Austen wrote romance, and although yes, her books are about so much more, what makes you think that other romances aren't about so much more as well? Romances aren't all bad, they aren't just about sex, they aren't read only by lonely housewives. But yes, sometimes the covers suck.

Then Pam Regis got up to talk about her definition of romance and the eight essential elements of romance. She also did something I didn't have the courage to do: she scolded the audience for laughing at romance. All through the conference, anytime someone mentioned chick lit, or, god forfend, romance novels, the audience tittered and giggled in disgust. And it really bugged me. But Pam said that a genre that goes back to the very beginnings of prose fiction, with such a long and distinguished career, with such a broad and intelligent audience, deserves so much more than automatic dismissal. That got a lot of nods and maybe even applause.

Mary/Eloisa then discussed how she got into writing romance by saying that she grew up in a house surrounded by poetry (her father is Robert Bly) and she used Austen's collected novels as a way to find something she could connect with on a more personal level, something that she could strongly identify with. She also discussed the broad audience and deep regard for romance.

I then discussed how Austen herself contributed to the modern romance by insisting that all her heroes undergo a moral education when they fall in love with the heroine. I argue that Austen was one of the first authors, if not the first, to show her heroes as well as her heroines learning how to be better people because of their love relationship. That the phrase "a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" could be extended to add something equally non-Austenian like "to complete him." I was challenged to say what Mr. Knightley from Emma learned and expounded my theory from my article in Talk in Jane Austen that his moral failing is not recognizing his love for Emma, which tricks him into making unfair statements about Frank Churchill.

Eric then discussed the dual literary heritage of romance fiction, specifically as shown in Ann Herendeen's bisexual Regency romance Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, in which the hero thinks that the heroine wrote Sense and Sensibility, rather than the lascivious Gothic novels she did in fact write. Eric talked about the dual heritage, literary and exuberantly vulgar that romance inhabits and discussed how one has to look for the intelligence of the novel, not in the narrator (usually) but in the handling of the eight elements and the play with convention, and that's where the best of romances shine.

We then had a lively and lengthy Q&A session with questions ranging from "How did a man start reading romance" (for Eric, obviously) to "Where do you get your ideas?" "Why don't you market romance like literary fiction?" and "How do you do your research?" (for Mary) to "Where are all the good sweet Regency romances?" (my answer: in ebooks). There were many many more questions that I can't remember and everyone was uniformly polite, open-minded, and interested in the topic. Everyone I talked to afterwards (and people kept coming up to me to say how wonderful the session was) expressed how they were so thrilled to have the session and have a whole long list of books to read now that they're really looking forward to.

So I'd say it was an unqualified success.

One thing I tried but failed to say during the panel was that every romance fan that you can find, reader or writer, will claim Jane Austen as our Ur-Mother. We're all aware, either consciously or otherwise, how important she is to romance fiction today. But if you ask most Janeites, they get all twittery every time romance is brought up, sometimes going so far as to disavow the notion that Austen wrote romance at all.

But then, there was Sunday brunch at JASNA, with the writers, producer, and star of the Broadway-bound Pride and Prejudice: The Musical. Lindsey and Amanda, the writers and composers, were incredible (and I sat next to Mr. Darcy for brunch!), but what their story about the production and the songs they performed showed me was that, fundamentally, Pride and Prejudice IS a romance. Because in order to take the novel down to a two to three hour musical, they have to cut and cut and cut it down, and what that does more than anything else is highlight the romance (listen to the songs on the site to see what I'm talking about--all the emotion, the power ballads, is located squarely in the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy). So for Janeites to disavow the romance label is, I think, at best disingenuous and at worst, willfully rewriting literary history.

This article, for instance, makes me crazy.

Of the new "chick-lit" style covers of Austen, Thompson argues: Of Persuasion: "Pure Mills & Boon, in fact; and sublimely inappropriate to the tone of this sad, shadowy novel." Did she read the same novel I did? Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel because she takes a sad, autumnal tone and turns it into the most stunningly compelling expression of the power and optimism of romance you could ever hope to read: "You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope." Indeed.

Thompson locates the rise of Austen as romance novelist with the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth. One might point to the 1940 version by Aldous Huxley with Laurence Olivier. One might point to how contemporary readers gushed over Darcy's character when P+P was published. But no, let's stick to the latest incarnation of Austen-mania. Thompson writes condescendingly: "Jane Austen might not mind about this. She might shrug and write a new book, about people who read novels without understanding a word of them. But she would surely think that her work - so finely wrought, so literary - was drowning in the swamp of so much love." And here we come back to the notion that "finely wrought" and "literary" necessarily means NOT romance, necessarily means idiot readers and misreadings and reading for the wrong reasons. Because "There is, in fact, a kind of epic wrongness about the recasting - reselling - of Jane Austen as a romantic novelist. It might have made her as popular as Helen Fielding, but it has led to a desperately etiolated perception of her books. Instead of reading Austen, we are reading our own reading of her; and, in true modern style, what we see in her is ourselves." Let's ignore the fact that she says that Darcy has 30,000 pounds a year when in fact he has 10K, because it's not about the facts, right? Or, no, let's not, because if it isn't about the facts, it's about what one gets out of a book and that is and should be purely personal and not something for anyone to condemn like this.

I find it fascinating that after raising the specter of Darcy-mania, she then focuses on Elizabeth: "Hence the popularity of Elizabeth Bennet, who resonates particularly because she embodies the contemporary virtue of 'being yourself'." But then, after all, "It is not difficult, after all, to read what one wants to read in a novel. Every reader does it, to an extent. But the landscape of what is seen in books is becoming increasingly impoverished. Indeed, it might be that the reality of literature no longer lies within its words. As Jane Austen flourishes, the literary sense that she possessed in its most refined form is slowly dying: the irony would have amused her."

One might point out that the continued exuberance of JASNA conventions, where we pick apart the very phonemes of Austen's words in ways that inspire new and fascinating readings, can be placed squarely in the laps of the movies. People watch the movies and then read the books, or watch the movies and rediscover the books and then turn to JASNA to help express the joy, the beauty, and the social pertinence of Austen's vision. And yes, that vision is located in the cutting commentaries on a woman's place and the problems of marriage, but it's also located in the happy endings that complete every novel. Austen wouldn't be the comfort read of so many people all over the world if it weren't for the happy endings, the deep commitment that the hero and heroine make to each other at the end of each novel, of the essential optimism of that world vision.

So while on the one hand, "Yes, no doubt about it, that 1995 Andrew Davies adaptation did some dreadful damage. Shamelessly and cleverly alert to the modern sensibility, it let the moral dimension of the book pretty much go hang, simplifying the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy into one of good old sex," on the other hand, the dreadful and shameless one here is Thompson, trying to impose her own elitist vision of Austen's novels on everyone else's reading habits, precisely what she argues that this "new" vision of Austen is doing.

Ahem. So. Anyway. I guess the point of my post and of the panel--that Austen and romance DO mix and mingle--represents my own personal view of Austen, but what Saturday night showed me is that I'm not alone in this vision. Not by a long shot.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Visiting Jane

Sarah, Eric and Pamela are all at the Jane Austen Society of North America 2008 Annual General Meeting in Chicago this weekend. They, along with Eloisa James/Mary Bly, were speaking on Saturday evening about "Romance Fiction in the Wake of Austen":
Contemporary critics and phrase-makers may link romance fiction with terms like "Post-Austen, post-Regency, post-modern, and perhaps even post-romantic", but never Post-Passion. Four experts on romance in life and literature bring us up to date on the where's and why's of romance since Austen's time.
A good indication of the level of interest there was in this session is that it "had standing room only in a room that seated at least 200."

The illustration is a "watercolour sketch of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra (c. 1804)" and I got it from Wikipedia.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Negotiating Gender Relations: Penny Jordan's They're Wed Again

At the Feminism and Popular Culture Conference last year, Laura gave a paper on "Feminism Revisits Mills & Boon: Second and Third Wave Contexts and Struggles in Two Mills & Boon Lines," in which she argued that

one can find parallels between the social and economic contexts in which many heroines of the M&B 'Modern' / Harlequin Presents line find themselves, and society as critiqued by Second Wave feminists. One could characterise the line as being one where there is conflict between men and women, creating an impression of a battle of the sexes [...]
This conflict between men and women is typically emphasised by an inequality of power and social status at the beginning of a novel: the hero has the advantage because of his wealth and the power it involves,* while the heroine is often less well off and overall in a more vulnerable position than the hero. Yet by the end of the novel, the external and internal conflicts have been overcome and, as Laura wrote in her blog post, the heroine "has achieved sexual fulfillment, equality within marriage and the freedom to pursue her career should she wish to do so."

When I read Penny Jordan's They're Wed Again (1999/2008) I was forcibly reminded of Laura's paper, not because Jordan's book is a typical M&B Modern romance, but because it's not. They're Wed Again is a second-chance-at-love story about a divorced couple who meet again before the wedding of the heroine's niece due to a mix-up with the invitations. The story of their marriage is told in flashbacks as both protagonists ponder on what went wrong with their marriage and where they made mistakes. This premise in itself is rather unusual: many second-chance-at-love stories within in the Modern line involve some sort of revenge plot** and a hero who thinks himself wronged by the heroine.

What lay at the root of the protagonists' problems in Jordan's novel is just as unusual because it turns a typical Modern / Presents scenario upside down: "It had been a private joke between them in those early days that she was the one with the large salary and the company car, whilst he was the one still eking out a meagre living on a grant" (Jordan 8). Yet the joke soon turns sour when Luc, the hero, feels more and more inadequate: "'It hurt me that I couldn't afford to provide you with the material things you wanted, that I wasn't the one paying the mortgage, that I couldn't go out and order that bed you wanted ...'" (Jordan 71). The financial inequality in their marriage challenges Luc's masculinity and he feels "demeaned" (Jordan 71) because he cannot not fulfill the traditional role of the provider and breadwinner in the family. In the intervening years, however, he has come to realise that it was wrong to let old gender roles dictate his life:

Certainly it had seemed impossible at the time for them to be able to reconcile their growing differences, but in the years since then his position [he is a Maths professor] had given him plenty of opportunity to observe and consider the changes taking place in the way the sexes related to one another and ran their relationships. (Jordan 53)
In hindsight, he now acknowledges, "If I was proud then it was a false pride. My pride should have been in you, in what you were doing for both of us, in what we are achieving by working together." (Jordan 71)

The heroine, on the other hand, used to be a career woman, and at one point her husband "accused her of putting her career above their marriage" (Jordan 39). But just as Luc now views his behaviour in the past in a different light, so does Belle:

[...] she was beginning to respond to a previously unacknowledged need to allow things into her life other than her work, beginning to admit to a sense of awareness that there were certain things she was missing out on [...] (Jordan 39)
In They're Wed Again Jordan thus explicitly discusses gender relations and makes questions of gender and equal opportunities a central focus of her story. In contrast to many other M&B Modern / Harlequin Presents novels, the battle between the sexes took place in the past (and eventually resulted in the break-up of Luc and Belle's marriage). When the story opens, the protagonists are now equal in all ways, and they have also reached a more balanced view on gender relations and on combining career and family. Thus, one could argue that the problems the protagonists face in the past of the novel are those of Second Wave Feminism, while the present stands for Third Wave Feminism and its struggles. Remarkably, this difference is perceived by the characters themselves. Comparing the young couple whose wedding they will attend, with themselves, Luc says, "'Fortunately his generation has a far healthier and more flexible attitude towards interchanging the traditional roles than ours perhaps did'" (Jordan 48, emphasis mine).

In the paper I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Laura argued that issues of Third Wave Feminism are more likely to be found in another line of Harlequin Mills&Boon: in the Romance line: "The second line I looked at is the 'Romance' line and the heroines of this line find themselves in a context which more closely resembles those in which Third Wave Feminists have reached adulthood." And again, she quoted from the submission guidelines: "the guidelines state that the novels must be 'About a hero and heroine who are equal (they need each other, their strengths and weaknesses balance the other's).'" As I have shown, Jordan's novel transcends these guidelines and combines elements from the Modern / Presents line with those from the Romance line.
  • Penny Jordan. They're Wed Again. The Mills & Boon Centenary Collection. Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2008.

* Indeed, many of the M&B Modern heroes are what I call uber-alpha males: they are not only billionaires, no, they are Greek/Italian/Spanish billionaires because it would seem that the blood runs hotter in the veins of men from southern Europe than in those from dear, old England.

** One author who is great with revenge plots is Lynne Graham: see Claiming His Wife and Child, an anthology published as part of the "Queens of Romance" series in 2006. It contains two novels from 2000 and 2001 respectively, One Night with His Wife and Duarte's Child. As the second title implies, there are also secret babies involved.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Reading from the Gut

I've read some books recently which just didn't work for me because of my emotional response to them, and while I was thinking about that, I also pondered a few statements that were made during a heated discussion at Dear Author about Linda Howard's Death Angel. MS Jones wrote that
good writing can make us suspend dismay with the underlying philosophy/world view. I think the better the writing, the easier it is to swallow values at odds with our own. [...] the rake hero/virgin heroine characterization, which has got to be the most pervasive trope in the entire romance genre) doesn’t work for me (and please, I’m not judging readers who buy it). But I really liked Lord of Scoundrels, [...] Chase redeems these clichés with her excellent characterization and witty writing.
I'm not sure how we could arrive at a non-subjective definition of what constitutes "good writing" but as I was thinking about the idea of "gut reactions," the metaphor of good writing helping readers to "swallow values at odds with our own" was interesting. Can good writing sweeten a bitter pill of medicine which is good for us? Or must we beware of it lest it coats a poisoned pill of values that might harm us? Is brain candy tasty but badly written? Is too much of it harmful? What's so special about our guts and what do we really prove when we eat the pudding? I might have to spend some time digesting all those metaphors.

Lets get back to the question of whether or not, if a reader enjoys a book containing a premise that would usually annoy her or him, it's a possible indicator of "excellent characterization and witty writing." In some cases it might suggest that, certainly, but perhaps it could also suggest that something in the characterisation appeals to that reader, or that something about the way it's written seems witty to that reader and that the pleasure the reader derives from these qualities over-rides their lack of appreciation for the underlying premise. The judgements about the quality of the characterisation and the wittiness of the writing may remain subjective ones.

Jane A., meanwhile, stated of the comments about Howard's novel that "One readers “garbage” is another readers “treasure” and I don’t think a mediocre writer could engender such a response." I'm not at all sure how one determines the exact criteria by which to judge excellence, mediocrity and total lack of talent. The comments about the book mostly seemed to me to demonstrate that the writer had included some things in her text which greatly annoyed some readers but pleased (or at least didn't displease) others. If a text gives lots of readers gut troubles, is that really a sign of literary excellence?

Of course we may wish to believe that the books we like best are the ones that are the best written, and some people may also like to think of themselves as connoisseurs with refined palates who are able to appreciate flavours that wouldn't appeal to those with more common tastes. Northrop Frye made some rather biting comments on the topic:
Shakespeare, we say, was one of a group of English dramatists working around 1600, and also one of the great poets of the world. The first part of this is a statement of fact, the second a value-judgement so generally accepted as to pass for a statement of fact. But it is not a statement of fact. It remains a value-judgement, and not a shred of systematic criticism can ever be attached to it. (20)
and "Rhetorical value-judgements are closely related to social values, and are usually cleared through a customs-house of moral metaphors: sincerity, economy, subtlety, simplicity, and the like" (21) and
The hesitant reader is invited to try the following exercise. Pick three big names at random, work out the eight possible combinations of promotion and demotion [...] and defend each in turn. Thus if the three names picked were Shakespeare, Milton, and Shelley, the agenda would run:
  1. Demoting Shelley, on the ground that he is immature in technique and profundity of thought compared to the others.
  2. Demoting Milton, on the ground that his religious obscurantism and heavy doctrinal content impair the spontaneity of his utterance.
  3. Demoting Shakespeare, on the ground that his detachment from ideas makes his dramas a reflection of life rather than a creative attempt to improve it.
  4. Promoting Shakespeare, on the ground that he preserves an integrity of poetic vision which in the others is obfuscated by didacticism.
  5. Promoting Milton, on the ground that his penetration of the highest mysteries of faith raises him above Shakespeare's unvarying worldliness and Shelley's callowness.
  6. Promoting Shelley, on the ground that his love of freedom speaks to the heart of modern man more immediately than poets who accepted outworn social or religious values.
  7. Promoting all three (for this a special style, which we may call the peroration style, should be used).
  8. Demoting all three, on the ground of the untidiness of English genius when examined by French or Classical or Chinese standards.
The reader may sympathize with some of these "positions," as they are called, more than with others, [...] But long before he has finished his assignment he will realize that the whole procedure involved is an anxiety neurosis prompted by a moral censor, and is totally devoid of content. (23-24)
In other words, as satirist Stephen Colbert might say, very often readers and critics make judgements on the basis of what their "guts" tell them but they then appeal to apparently objective standards to justify those gut reactions. I certainly wouldn't argue that our guts are wrong, because clearly they're right about what appeals to them, but I do think it's helpful to be aware that gut reactions may attempt to disguise themselves as statements of objective fact.

Some are easier to spot than others. The Smart Bitches recently posted about Robert DeMaria's The College Handbook of Creative Writing. He writes that
Trivial literary entertainments such as thrills and romances and television dramas [...] have a role to play in the lives of many people, [...] though significance in such works is clearly minimal. Their aim is to thrill, chill, and titillate. Frank Lloyd Wright once described television as “chewing gum for the eyes.” It’s an excellent description of that medium and might also apply to most of our light literature. Chewing gum gives you a lot of action but no nourishment. Great literature, on the other hand, is full of emotional, spiritual, and intellectual nourishment.
It's apparent to romance readers that he's writing from his gut (and not just because he uses the metaphor of "nourishment"). He's generalising and not providing any textual evidence that all the works he dismisses truly lack the ability to "nourish" the brain as well as the gut.

We may dislike certain styles of writing, certain types of humour, particular character types or plots etc, and it's valid to note these gut reactions. In addition, because I'm probably one of that group of what Colbert dubbed "brainiacs on the nerd patrol" (and yes, he was being satirical, and there's a full transcript of his speech here) I think it's interesting to use our brains to explore why we have those gut reactions. As Robin wrote during that debate about Linda Howard's novel, "I definitely think these discussions are worth having, not only because they’re interesting textually, but also because we ALL harbor ideological views we’re not fully aware of."

Whether a particular novel is, or isn't, "badly written," however, is really quite a separate issue. Frye writes that
Comparative estimates of value are really inferences, most valid when silent ones, from critical practice, not expressed principles guiding its practice. The critic will find soon, and constantly, that Milton is a more rewarding and suggestive poet to work with than Blackmore. But the more obvious this becomes, the less time he will want to waste in belaboring the point. For belaboring the point is all he can do: any criticism motivated by a desire to establish or prove it will be merely one more document in the history of taste. (25)
I'd suggest that even that needs some qualification, because perhaps there's a critic out there who would find Blackmore "a more rewarding and suggestive poet to work with than Milton." I've certainly been finding that many romances are much more complex and rewarding to work with than many people had previously imagined was possible. And for anyone who's interested in reading TMT and Northrop Frye's collected thoughts on what literary critics should do (rather than offering up their gut reactions to texts in the guise of arguments about literary merit), we've got more here.
  • Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. 1957. Oxford: Princeton UP, 2000.
The image is from Wikimedia Commons and is of part of a human duodenum. I thought it was rather pretty, really, and certainly much more rewarding to look at than I'd imagined part of a gut could be.