Monday, November 24, 2008

Not Another Ripped Bodice!

Mark Athitakis gives a concise description of the term "bodice-ripper" which explains why it's so hated by so many romance authors and readers:
Bodice-ripper -- Derogatory term for the historical single-title romance, referring literally to the habit of '70s historical novels of including sex scenes in which the heroine's clothes are torn off, or something similarly abusive. A dead subgenre; when uttered to a romance aficionado, the inspiration for a lengthy, irate lecture.
Poison Ivy offers us a description of just how irate that response can be:
The other evening I was dining with a batch of old friends from the comic book business. As conversations do, the talk turned to what each of us was working on, and thus to my long stint in romances. An otherwise nice fellow made the mistake of asking me about “bodice rippers.” I almost leapt across the table to throttle him. He was taken aback by my impassioned annoyance.

It’s a sore spot with most romance readers (and writers and editors) that most non-romance readers pick up an ignorant, pejorative term for our genre—a pejorative term foisted on us by the hostile and patronizing mass media—and continue to use it decades after that particular appellation could possibly apply.
However, as I was reading Emma Holly's Courting Midnight, I got the distinct impression that this particular romance author was deliberately and playfully transforming the bodice-ripping motif. She includes this scene between two secondary characters:
"You are mine," he said, squeezing it [her breast] possessively. "No other man shall have you."
Caroline had been dreaming of hearing those words all her life. She wanted to match them with an equal claim of her own, some gesture for the bold step she was taking. One glance at his heaving chest told her what it should be. She took hold of his shirt's open neck and tore the sweaty linen straight down the front. [...]
"No other woman," she declared on a gasp of sweet sensation, "shall ever have you."
Aidan had been goggling over her behavior, but at this he broke into a laugh. "I am sure I dare not disagree[."] (286)
It made me "goggle" and "break into a laugh" too, because the reversal in the gender of the person ripping the bodice transforms the motif, rendering it slightly ridiculous by unsettling gender stereotypes. Here we have the virgin ripping the clothing off her hunky lover, taking control of her own sexuality, claiming her man and making it more than clear that she doesn't need to be forced or seduced in order to feel able to express her desires. In the process, the motif loses its undertones of danger and rape, leaving space for laughter.

Pam Rosenthal's also played with the motif:
For me, genre form is like the melody of an old standard; I like to riff on it, work against it, improvise. So I wrote a ripped bodice into my first romance novel. It's a tiny little rip, to fool someone. I thought it was funny. I enjoyed having my hero apologize to my heroine that he'd wanted evidence of carnality that was "absolutely convincing." As though everybody, even in pre-Revolutionary France, would know what a ripped bodice signified.
Bodice-ripping has also evoked some rather more prosaic responses. Over at the eHarlequin forums Shewolf0316 once commented that
As is often found in romance and erotica alike, there is the one scene where the characters are so incensed with lust that they can't wait and they guy rips the woman's blouse right down the middle.

If it were me in the middle of a sexy encounter like that and a guy tore my clothing from my body, destroying it, I'd be ticked off! I can actually visualize it in my mind, the guy tears my shirt apart, I stop smack in the middle of his seduction and rant "what the h*ll are you doing? I paid $50 bucks for that shirt and you just ruined it!"
It's a very valid point and in another scene in Holly's novel, the hero takes such financial considerations into account
A flurry of motion brushed her skin, like giant wings beating up and down. She gasped into his mouth when she realized what he had done. He was indeed in a rush. She was naked, and in no more time than it took to blink half a dozen times. Her clothes lay in a shredded heap around her ankles.
Still fastened to her at the mouth, he chuckled at her surprise. "I promise to replace them," he said. (263)
Not only does the hero promise to replace the damaged clothing, but the context in which the actions take place pre-empts a second prosaic concern about bodice-ripping. As noted by another commenter on the eHarlequin thread, Lady Amalthea,
I feel like fabric is tougher than the authors realize...wouldn't it be somewhat uncomfortable having someone pull on your clothes hard enough that they rip? I'm thinking particularly about elastic-waist panties...that elastic snapping back on you...ouch!
This isn't a problem for Lucius because he's a super-powerful upyr and as the novel's a historical as well as a paranormal romance, the heroine's not wearing any elastic.

I haven't read Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, but in it "Jong coined the term 'zipless fuck,' which soon entered the popular lexicon" (Wikipedia). The phrase came to mind when I read the scene in which Lucius shreds clothing in seconds. Here's how it's described in Jong's novel: "The zipless fuck was more than a fuck. It was a platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff" (qtd. in Berger 140). Shana Abé's drákon protagonists manage this kind of thing with even greater ease than Lucius does. All they need to do is change into smoke and then back into human form: "She [...] Turned to smoke and back, so she could lay atop her gown and the blankets and feel his hands upon her bare skin" (332). It's probably worth noting that Jong also wrote that "For the true, ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never get to know the man very well" (qtd. in Berger 140). Romance authors would not seem to believe that's a necessary or desirable pre-condition to enjoyment of a "zipless fuck", but in general they do tend to end their novels before some of the more mundane details of life can intrude on their characters' passion.

Finally, since I'm discussing the topic of romance and bodices and have mentioned ways that it's been humorously transformed, I feel I must report RfP's latest theory:
Romance novels have a long tradition of lurid covers; the older novels in the genre often featured a bare-chested man ripping open the bodice of a stunned-looking woman. Or should I say, apparently ripping open. If the bodice ripper is really a bodice lacer, that puts a new complexion on the matter.

The painting is "The Rape of Proserpine (about 1650), by Simone Pignoni" (Wikimedia Commons).

Friday, November 21, 2008

Jessica on Heroes and Uncontrollable Urges

Jessica's written a post, "Runaway Train: Uncontrollable Hero Lust in Romance," in which she provides a lot of textual evidence which suggests that in romances the sexually aroused hero is often described in ways which bring to mind a runaway train. Such depictions suggest that once the hero gets a certain way down the tracks, there's no way to brake in time to stop him going all the way to his destination.

Jessica goes on to explore possible interpretations of, and consequences which may result from, these depictions of what might be termed the "male sexual drive discourse". Here's a quotation which describes this discourse (I also quoted it in an earlier post about rakes):
Foucault (1978), Tiefer (1995), and others have argued that sexuality is constructed within particular sociocultural contexts and discourses. The male sexual drive discourse was identified by Hollway (1984) as a principle discourse in the production of meanings concerning contemporary sexuality. This discourse has its origin in sociobiological views of men's role to pursue and procreate, and hence in the primacy and importance of the male sexual drive.

Themes associated with the male sexual drive discourse are well documented in the social psychological literature. Zilbergeld (1978) identified the following themes: sex is a male performance; the man is responsible for orchestrating sex; a man always wants and is always ready to have sex; for a man, all physical contact must lead to sex; and birth control is the woman's responsibility. Similarly, Reinholtz et al. (1995) included the following in their list of common themes in communication about sexuality: male sexuality as uncontrollable, female responsibility for male sexuality, sex as a force of nature, and men as dominant and women as submissive. These researchers also identified a theme they labeled, "romance," the cultural notion that when two people "fall in love," sex automatically follows and cannot be controlled by rational consideration. (Gilbert, Walker, McKinney, and Snell 755-56)
I'd encourage you to read Jessica's post and join in the discussion at her blog.

[Edited to add: In a follow-up to Jessica's post, Robin explores the "runaway train" as it relates to rape in the genre. I'll give a long quote from Robin's post to give a flavour of her arguments:
1) there is a relationship between the real lives of women and Romance, but I do not believe it is a one-to-one reader-to-book cause-and-effect link. I see Romance more as a representational space in which various issues, anxieties, ideals, moral prohibitions, social boundaries, cultural values, and the like are in negotiation and in play as alternate realities. 2) we can talk about rape in Romance, but it is inevitable that readers will vary widely on how they define it, in large part based on the extent to which the reader consents on behalf of the heroine. 3) because male sexual aggression has so many permutations in Romance, there is no way to conduct a unified analysis under the term “rape” or “rape fantasy” or “forced seduction” or the like, although perhaps we can come up with some general categories and go from there. For example, perhaps we can distinguish rape as a sexual fantasy for the character from rape as a sexual fantasy for the reader, and then further distinguish the reader fantasy by focusing on a continuum of force and consent. 4) in spite of the complicated relationship between real life sexual assault and male sexual aggression in Romance, I do believe that the trope can be read as subversive of real life rape and liberating in ways that relate to the romantic idealism of Romance. That said, I think that there are also some troubling aspects to the trope of male sexual aggression in Romance, and we need to be more willing to investigate them without falling back into the polarized “rape apologist” v. “it’s only fiction” argument that so often emerges around this trope.
Robin's post also examines the law on rape in a variety of different US states: "how those statutes vary reflects not only different views of rape in different legal jurisdictions, but also who wrote the statutes, when they were written, and how the underlying perceptions of rape and female sexuality play into the drafting and enforcement of those statutes." Again, it's a complex post and one I'd encourage people to go and read in full.]

The tracks shown in this post, by the way are from Wikipedia and are sleeper-less, which seemed particularly appropriate because romance heroes often have tremendous stamina. The photo is also rather apt, I thought, because at the point in the narrative Jessica's discussing, heroes tend to have one track minds.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

IASPR on Facebook

Dear all,
The International Association for the Study of Popular Romance is yet to be officially launched, but it already has a facebook group. I have created this group to easily gather all information related to the study of popular romance novels and create a certain sense of overview. It's a place to publish CFPs, create events, announce research news, get in touch with fellow romance scholars, participate in discussions on romance, etc. Come join us and share in the fun!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Eric's Autumnal Thoughts

Eric's pet lizard has, one might euphemistically say, gone to live in the happy lizard land in the sky. Or, to paraphrase Wordsworth
A lizard by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
--Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Shemp had ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
So since it's autumn and Eric is in a pensive frame of mind, he'd like to read romances featuring more "mellow fruitfulness":
No wonder, in this autumnal mood, I’ve developed a soft spot in my heart for slightly older romance heroes and heroines. [...] I’m sure by spring I’ll be ready for young lovers again. But for the long, cold days ahead here in Chicago, heroes and heroines of “a certain age” would sure be mighty comforting. Any authors or books to recommend?
You can make your recommendations over at Romancing the Blog, where there are more details about the causes of Eric's thoughtful mood.

The picture is actually of Bill the Lizard, drawn by Sir John Tenniel, and I got the illustration from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Introduction and revised deadline for PCA conference

Dear all,

My name is An Goris and it has appeared in the right-hand column of this blog for over a year now, but aside from some brief comments I haven't posted anything and I presume most of you don't know me. Let me therefore begin by briefly introducing myself. I'm a young (24) graduate student from Belgium, where I have been pursuing a PhD at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven since October 2007. My research focusses on the interaction between genre and authorship in popular culture. I do this by analysing a wide selection of novels from Nora Roberts, one of the most prolific and popular romance authors today. To my surprise, there is relativelty little serious academic work on Roberts' oeuvre out there; it's my intention to change that in the years to come. While I work on Roberts' novels primarily in English, I'm also pursuing a project on romance novels in translation (Dutch and French for the time being) together with my fellow Belgian romance scholar Séverine Olivier.

I would love to get in touch with anybody else who is working on Nora Roberts, romance in translation, authorship and genre or other related topics, so feel free to leave comments or email me. Or meet up with me at the PCA conference in New Orleans next Spring - which brings me to the second part of my post today:

The deadline for submitting a proposal for the romance area of the 2009 PCA/ACA conference is November 30 2008 (and not November 15 as the original CFP states). Eric and Darcy have received relatively few submissions, so we want to actively encourage people to send something in. The conference has been an absolute delight in the past; it's a blast to meet up with fellow romance scholars. As a young graduate student myself I can testify that the romance area is very welcoming of both beginning and experienced scholars, so do feel encouraged to send something in and join us in the Big Easy next Spring!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Romance in Teaching American Literature

It's the morning, I wanted to post about some journal articles, and those seemed like good enough reasons to include this picture. However, the journal I'd really like to bring to your attention is not the Morning Journal but Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice. As explained in an introduction by guest editor Suzanne Milton,
This special issue of Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice, devoted to essays written about selected contemporary American romance fiction writers, is intended to provide instructors with bio-bibliographical information about several novelists, highlighting primary themes and motifs, with some analysis of the author’s contribution to the genre. Each entry provides a comprehensive list of the author’s fiction works that can be further explored in the classroom. This issue may also be of interest to researchers, librarians and readers who wish to learn more about a particular novelist.
Unfortunately the articles are liberally sprinkled with editing errors (Sarah Frantz's surname was misspelled, for example).

There's lots of food for thought and discussion, though. For example, Milton writes that
contemporary romance can be traced back to the 1980’s when historical romance was still popular, but a variety of sociological trends created a socio-psychological shift and romance writers responded to these changes by creating more assertive heroines who played an increasingly significant role in shaping their own destiny.
There seems to be an implication in there that historical romance is no longer popular, which seems a rather odd idea to me. In addition, although I'm aware that significant changes took place in the genre in the 1980s, I wonder why Milton didn't decide to trace the modern romance genre back rather further than that. I don't think any history of the genre would be complete without some mention of Mills & Boon (now part of Harlequin), which came into existence in 1908 and published contemporary romances long before the 1980s. One might also wish to mention Mary Stewart, who
is considered by many to be the mother of the modern romantic suspense novel. She was among the first to integrate mystery and love story, seamlessly blending the two elements in such a way that each strengthens the other. Pamela Regis writes, "Stewart's influence extends to every writer of romantic suspense, for Stewart understood and perfected this hybrid of romance and mystery and used it as a structure for books so beautifully written that they have endured to become part of the canon of the twentieth-century romance novel." Popular authors continue to list her books among their favorites and cite her as influential to their own work. And even thirty years after publication, her books continue to be reprinted again and again. (
The essays in this volume of Teaching American Literature, which are all in pdf format, are as follows:

  • Suzanne Milton's "Danielle Steel: Bringing Family Issues to Light." Milton writes that "Danielle Steel is one of the most widely-read romance fiction writers of this century. [...] Sixty-five of her writings fall into the category of romance fiction." Although I haven't read any of Danielle Steel's novels, I got the distinct impression from this essay that, unlike romances, which focus on a central couple, Steel's novels tend to be more akin to sagas since they cover a long span of the heroine's life, or even tell the story of more than one generation of a family.
  • Sarah S. G. Franz's [sic] "Suzanne Brockmann: The Military and the Romance." Sarah's a persuasive advocate for Brockmann, but at first I wondered if this claim went a little too far: "Suzanne Brockmann, New York Times best-selling and RITA-award-winning author, pioneered and popularized military romances." Heyer's An Infamous Army, for example, is a military romance and her The Spanish Bride is historical fiction/military romance. I suppose, though, that one can have many pioneers and there certainly seems to be a consensus that, in the words of AAR's Blythe Barnhill, Brockmann's Tall, Dark, and Dangerous mini-series started the Navy SEALS trend."
  • Wendy Wagner's "Jennifer Crusie: Romance as Academic Question." I'd be really, really interested to know what evidence (other than the subject matter of the novel) Wagner has for this:
    One of the subplots of Trust Me On This involves Crusie's subtle mockery of academic life. [...] Trust Me On This reflects Crusie's disenchantment with academic life; at around this time, Crusie put her dissertation writing on hold in order to complete the MFA program at Ohio State. (4-5)
    Wagner goes on to add that
    In an essay she wrote for Paradoxa in 1997, Crusie argues that romance fiction is not fantasy but instead is centered on women's reality [...] This essay has a fitting placement at the end of her academic career and basically asserts her divergence from academic feminism and the academic literary canon. (5)
    Yet, as Wagner notes (7-8) Crusie edited a collection of essays and short stories (published in 2005) about Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which I'd tend to think of as forming part of "the academic literary canon." And what of Crusie's "This Is Not Your Mother's Cinderella: The Romance Novel As Feminist Fairy Tale," an essay published in Romantic Conventions, a 1999 collection of essays published by Bowling Green State University Popular Press and written by academics about the romance genre? I'd also have to conclude that when Wagner wrote this she hadn't read the blog post Crusie wrote in July 2007 in which Crusie revealed that
    Last week, out of the blue, I had the inexplicable urge to finish my PhD. It’s been hanging fire for over ten years, but suddenly the need was there. And because I am impulsive, I e-mailed good people at OSU and said, “Can I come back and finish?” and by the end of the day, I had half of my committee and a welcome back from the head of the English Department.
  • Fahamisha Patricia Brown's "Beverly Jenkins: African American History and the Romance Novel." Although this is the shortest of all the essays, it goes a long way towards explaining why Jenkins is "the first African American writer since Frank Yerby (1916-1991) to establish a reputation as an author of American historical romance, Beverly Jenkins today stands alone" (3).
  • Patricia Kennedy Bostian's "Amanda Scott: Bringing History to Life." Bostian states that "the successful heroine of the Regency is one whose values are firmly planted in the 20th century, while the setting is meticulously 18th century" (1). I suspect some readers of this blog might disagree with that.

I found Louis Rhead's poster for the Morning Journal at Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Busy Times

Sarah's been very busy recently, and she explains why in her latest post at Romancing the Blog. She can see parallels between the romance genre and recent political events:
maybe this lesson that Obama has taught America is the lesson that romance can teach its readers and which its readers can then teach the world. “We are the change that we’ve been looking for,” Obama has told us, “We are the ones that we seek.”
And when I said that Sarah had been busy, I was also referring to the fact that she's been posting more at Dear Author. Her latest post there is about the sexual content in erotic romances.

Also making connections between the current economic/political climate and romance reading is The Scotsman's Claire Black who suggests that
as the news gets worse, the need for some kind of escape gets all the more pressing and where there are losers there are always, always, winners.

Talk of this kind may be perceived as a little unseemly when three million of us are in danger of sliding into negative equity [...] but hey, economics aren't personal – it's the law of the market and the fact is when things are heading down the dumper for some, they're looking peachy keen for others.

So, who's a winner in the current meltdown? [...] The victor in this case is romance. There, doesn't it make you feel better just reading that? Or perhaps it would if I'd written it more breathily, full of sensual glances, smouldering eyes and unbridled passion. The real winner in our economic meltdown, you see, is the book publisher Mills & Boon.
In the UK we haven't had an election, but we did get some TV programmes about romance. Sam Wollaston describes them both:
Consuming Passion: 100 Years of Mills & Boon (BBC4, Sunday). This is a lovely drama. Dead clever too: three stories - from the 1900s, the 1970s and now - artfully plaited together. All that ties the disparate strands is this strange publishing house that for a century has been churning out the same story, millions and millions of times. [...]

How To Write a Mills & Boon (BBC4, Sunday). Trying is Stella Duffy, a serious, literary novelist. M&B is way, way out of Stella's comfort zone; her thing is more along the lines of lesbian-noir-realism. Or something.

It would have been very easy for her to be sniffy and condescending about Mills & Boon, but to her credit she's the opposite. She has a real go at it - listens to people, goes on a writing course in Tuscany (prime M&B territory), stifles her attempts to write what she wants to write. And she succeeds, in that the editor likes what she's done and would have taken it on had Stella wanted to continue with it.

The programme is a success too.

There's already been some discussion about How to Write a Mills & Boon at the Smart Bitches' site. During the programme Stella goes on a course to learn how to write Mills & Boon. As reported on the I Heart Presents blog, this was Sharon Kendrick’s writing workshop and, also on the I Heart Presents blog, Jennie Lucas , who's featured on the programme, wrote about her time at this workshop (parts 1, 2, and 3).

Monday, November 03, 2008

That Looks A Bit Like ...

I was quite amused when I realised I was fairly sure what the inspiration was for the cover of Carol Townend's An Honourable Rogue. Take a look at Edmund Blair Leighton's God Speed!

The change to the direction of the horse and rider is extremely appropriate, since Benedict Silvester is not leaving, but rather is making an unexpected reappearance in, Rozenn's life. It's also interesting to see how Blair Leighton's knight has been replaced by a much less warlike traveller, and again that's very appropriate given that Rose wants to marry a knight but finds herself increasingly attracted to Benedict, who's a minstrel (albeit one who carries and knows how to use a sword).1

It may also be worth noting that although there isn't a scene in the novel like the one depicted on the cover, there is a scene in which Benedict holds Rose's hand. Rose's memory of that is described in the excerpt that Townend has on her website:
A memory of the previous night flashed in on her, when she and Ben had been talking to each other with only her table between them. He had held her hand and his fingers had moved gently over hers. So gently. She could almost feel the warmth of his fingertips as she would feel them if he were to lift her hand to his lips.

  • Townend, Carol. An Honourable Rogue. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2008.

1 "As a minstrel, Ben had not earned the right to bear full knightly arms, but when on the Duke's business he never travelled without his shortsword" (116).

There's another, longer, excerpt from the novel and a larger picture of the front cover available here. I found the Blair Leighton at Wikipedia.