Monday, January 26, 2009

Reading and Writing in the Brave New e-World

Someone on my Twitter list posted this article on changing reading habits, which I found very interesting and very personally pertinent.

In the last month, the only traditional paper book I've read all the way through is Suzanne Brockmann's Dark of Night, and that was an author's galley (8 1/2" by 11"; thank you, Suz!), not a "real" hardcover book like I'll be buying tomorrow when it's finally released. Everything else I've read has been on my computer (ebooks, articles from my Google Reader, Twitter list, LiveJournal friends list, email), or on my shiny new Sony Reader, or the newspaper.

When I first started writing a blog (LiveJournal and no, I'm not linking! :), I found myself narrativizing my life into LJ posts. How would I introduce my day? How would I make my post interesting/funny/poignant/readable? Is this happening worth posting about? How long will the post be--that is, is it too much trouble to write out? How much do I NEED to write this post, whether for myself or to solicit feedback?

Now I organize my day into Twitter posts. 140 characters, including spaces and punctuation, doesn't give you much room for anything. So I've noticed that I don't double space after terminal punctuation anymore (periods, exclamation marks, question marks, and the colon and its cousin, the semi-colon). I'm losing my articles (a, an, the) and many prepositions. I abbreviate more. I've lost the beauty of words and flowing phrases for the ability to convey my point in about 20-25 words.

When I read a book, I now wonder how I might review it, or what interesting thing I have to say about it in an academic article. I lost the ability just to read, to submerge myself in a book, many moons ago in graduate school. My inner literary critic won't go away. But now my inner reviewer adds herself to the chorus. Does the chorus of inner-mes contribute to my predilection for skimming, as the article above discusses? Does my inability to quiet the chorus explain why I find it so difficult to read a book without interrupting myself to check email or my Twitter friends list, or is that a function of the fact that so many of the books I now read are on my computer, and therefore clicking over to the next tab has just created a habit of mind that I can't break? Or is my compulsive belief that I just don't have any time to read mean that I can't sink into it?

Is this all a good thing? Bad? Or just a thing, just another consequence of advancing technology and no more good or bad than the introduction of all the other book technology that we take for granted nowadays that produced its own chorus of "OMG, the downfall of civilization as we know it!" when it was first introduced, before a generation or two of readers started to require them (like, you know, pages, and printing presses, and penny dreadfuls, and novels--I think you get the idea).

But how is this going to change The Book? I'd love to read a Twitter novel posted in 140 character increments that actually uses the form of Twitter to make literary points along the way. Silly me, that's already been done. But does the Twitter novel need to transform into "The Book" in order to be "successful." Well, certainly if "success"=money.

Plato can be found lamenting how the coming generation is rude and uneducated and doesn't respect its elders. I'm not trying to do that. I feel privileged to be part of the generation that is changing the world so stupendously. I'm just curious how it's going to affect my reading habits over the next fifty years. (And, to be honest, my job.)

Interesting CFP

The following CFP for an interdisciplinary graduate conference in Toronto might be interesting to some amongst us - it in particular reminded me of Eric's recent post at Romancing the Blog.

Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought
York University, Toronto
May 8-9, 2009

At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.-Ernesto "Che" Guevara

What do we talk about when we talk about love? With family and with friends, with lovers and with strangers, love is something we constantly pursue, practice, invoke and ignore. As elemental as oxygen, love animates our existence, but slips through our fingers the moment we try to pin it to the display-case of intellectual scrutiny. In the academy, we are quick to critique the dubious forms of love drummed up in the service of market and nation, but reluctant to reflect on the love that we live with every day. What could we mean by love? How to approach love's multiplicity, its objects, agents, bodies, acts, histories, dreams, philosophies, politics? Is it possible (or even desirable) to come to grips with love in the cold confines of an academic conference?

At the risk of seeming ridiculous - or schmaltzy, perhaps - Strategies of Critique XXIII hopes to trace love's matter and materials, its shapes and practices, its relations and revelations. Love is nothing if not ambiguous. Love moves us to action and to thought, but love also acts upon us in bewildering ways. Love binds and unbinds, hoards and gives, claims and renounces. Words and images of love surround us, seeping out of screens and headphones, but love itself can persistently be nowhere - or can unexpectedly return. Love intertwines and merges with desire, with sex, with longing, with need, with hate, with care, with loss, with domination and exploitation; it skirts along the ragged edges of gender, race, religion and class. Love is queer, excessive, uncanny, playful, fabulous, fecund, seriously fucked up. Faced with these ambiguities and antinomies, love nevertheless acts; we act against, through and with love; we make love, love makes us, shapes us, enacts us as we enact it. Love may elude our grasp, but still it holds us fast.

Strategies of Critique is an annual interdisciplinary graduate conference hosted by the Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought at York University, Toronto, Canada.

We welcome a broad range of submissions including, but not limited to, the following themes:

The Power of Love and the Love of Power
More Than Skin Deep - love and race
The Bonds of Love - intimacy, jealousy, masters and slaves
Gendered Love, Queering Love and Simply Vanilla
Love Bites - bestiality and animality
Only Love Can Break Your HeartIn the Name of Love - war, nation, poetry
Forbidden Loves
The Things We Love - commodities, fetishes, passionate attachments
What's Love Got to Do With It? - desire, fantasy, jouissance
Divine Love
Love for Sale - sex work and the business of love
The Ability to Love and be Loved - bodies, limitations and desire
Philo-sophy - eros, agape, philia, caritas
Love Stories, Histories of Love
The Aesthetics and Ethics of Love - beautiful, ugly, invisible
Com-passion, Community, Autonomy, Solidarity
Tough Love - family and neoliberalism
Love and Death - necro-philia, mourning, thanatos
Labours of Love - class, transactions and exchange
Free Love
The Angel of History

Abstracts for papers (max 250 words) and all queries should be sent to The deadline for submissions is February 20, 2009.

Strategies of Critique
Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought
York University Toronto, ON


Friday, January 23, 2009

Fictions and Reality

"Life, the aggregate of defined actions, events, or experiences, only becomes plot, story, theme, or motif once it has been refracted through the prism of the ideological environment, only once it has taken on concrete ideological flesh. Reality that is unrefracted and, as it were, raw is not able to enter into the content of literature." (Medvedev and Bakhtin [1928] 1978 qtd. Talbot 3)

"Fiction has to make sense; real life is often so perplexing as to defy explanation." (Miss Snark)

"Truth is stranger than fiction." (common phrase)

"As Luthi has pointed out, 'Fairy tales are unreal, but they are not untrue: they reflect the essential development and conditions of man's existence' (70).
But what can't be escaped can be revised." (Crusie 57)

"So what is fiction? Simply stories that do not pretend to be about real events. That's the easy answer, but of course there is more to it than that. The relation between fiction and reality is not a straight-forward one. The two have a peculiar way of getting mixed up together; distinguishing the two is not quite as easy as one might think, or hope." (Talbot 5)
Fiction, then, is selective. It can take elements of reality, but the particular elements which are chosen, and how they're placed together to form a whole, reflect choices made by the author, both consciously and subconsciously. What of reality? To a certain extent, all of us construct that too, as in the photo I've included above, of which the photographer commented that "This is a picture I took at the base of Niagara Falls, which itself is perhaps the world's most photographed subject. [...] I still use this picture to illustrate mediated reality, e.g. replacing reality with what's really there..." As individuals living our lives
When we chat to one another, we very often make stories about ourselves - about our excursions and exploits, about our thoughts and feelings. We create stories out of our memories - turning our lives into words and keeping the past alive. [...]
The news on television is full of stories. So are history books. We make narratives out of sequences of events all the time, even when involved in kinds of activity we would not associate with storytelling at all. (Talbot 3)
When we tell this kind of story about reality, we don't have as much creative freedom as an author writing fiction, but the similarities exist because this "storytelling" about reality is also "refracted through the prism of the ideological environment," and is also selective. Sometimes this selectivity is intentional, either because we deliberately want to mislead ourselves and/or others or because we think particular facts are not worth mentioning. At other times we may unintentionally forget or omit elements that seemed less important, or our narrative may take a particular shape because certain facts are not available to us. The Guardian advert, "Points of View," gives us an example of how this last possibility can affect the stories we tell about reality:

What we see in the advert is the same event, shot from various different points of view, and from each the "story" is different.1 The final shot claims to present "the whole picture" but of course it doesn't, because the advert itself is a story (created by John Webster). There is still so much left unknown and unseen.

The advert also depends for its impact on the reader's knowledge. In other words, the story is "refracted through the prism of the ideological environment" not once, but twice. When we read or listen to a "story" (whether it's intended to be read/heard as fiction, or as a narrative about reality, such as a nation's history and identity) we interpret that story in ways which reflect own experiences and beliefs. Readers too are selective. We choose which elements of the story to prioritise, we do not tend to remember every word the author wrote, and we may have differing interpretations of identical or similar narratives depending on the context in which they appear and/or what we know about the narrator. Here's a very topical example:

1 I've tried to embed the video, from YouTube, in the post but if the link breaks or if it fails to work for some other reason, you might be able to watch the advert at this website. Some stills from the advert are shown and described here.

The photo is from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Small Ethical Problem

The problem of plagiarism's being discussed again in romance-land (because of something cross-posted at Dear Author and the Smart Bitches). I don't want to get into a discussion of the details of what constitutes plagiarism (anyone who's interested in our views on that can take a look at the posts Sarah and I wrote last year, and there's discussion of it on both the DA and SB threads). No, what I want is some help in deciding what to do when one discovers an instance of what one thinks might be plagiarism.

In a romance I was working on (written in 1979, not by any author with an online presence and no-one at all famous, just in case anyone is worried) I noticed a couple of sentences which contain significant fragments of text that are identical, or near identical, to parts of sentences in the current edition of the online Encyclopedia Britannica, at least the parts of it I could read. The trouble is that access to the content of the EB is restricted, which is why matching phrases come up via Google but I couldn't guarantee I'd be able to provide entirely accurate transcriptions of the relevant sections of the EB passages in question. I haven't had time yet to find an edition of the EB which would have been available in the 1970s, but I've no reason to suspect that the EB copied details from a romance novel, nor could the similarities be accidental, so I'm working on the assumption that that part of the EB hasn't changed much in later editions. I'll double check all that before I take any action, which is why I'm not including the name of the author here, or quoting the passages in question. I don't want to fall into the ethical problem of wrongly accusing someone of plagiarism, after all.

No, my ethical problem is about what I should do if, as I expect it will, the text in the older, paper copy of the EB matches that of the modern, online EB. I'll give a bit of an overview of the problem, to give a bit of context and describe the possible extent/severity of it.

Some sentence fragments in the novel which matched those in the EB were describing technical aspects of a building that the heroine is visiting (and is the building described in the EB), but other, non-technical parts could certainly have been changed and put into the author's own words and she didn't do that. I noticed the problem a while ago, and I was troubled by it, but as Nora Roberts wrote on the thread at Dear Author, "I’d need more than one sentence to get my dander up." Then the question of plagiarism was raised again at Dear Author and the Smart Bitches. As a result of the discussions there, I went back to the novel to take a closer look and last night I came across another couple of sentences with the same problem, just a few pages after the ones I'd already found. That's when I really felt I couldn't let it slide.

Enough little changes had been made to make me suspect that the author deliberately reworked the sentences in order to avoid full sentences of word-for-word copying. I suppose it's conceivable that she copied the sentences verbatim from the EB (though she'd have had to just copied out those specific sentences and none of the rest of the article for that to be credible), left them for a while in a pile of papers without annotating the source, then came across them and thought she'd already changed them enough to make them hers, and at that point reworked them slightly. Possible, but not very likely.

Maybe she thought she'd changed them enough for it not to be plagiarism. As we all know, though, using someone else's words while sticking in or taking out a few commas, changing the word order slightly and/or inserting a couple of your own words in between chunks of someone else's, is still plagiarism. I wonder if the whole thing might have been the result of the mistaken "it's OK if you copy from non-fiction in order to get the details accurate" mindset. Clearly, that's wrong. It's still plagiarism, and authors of non-fiction (as I know from personal experience, since that's what I write) can spend a lot of time trying to polish their prose.

I don't want to boycott the author completely because (a) the book has a very nice example of legitimate intertextuality (b) I'd spent a considerable amount of time working on that before I noticed the illegitimate kind (i.e. plagiarism) and I'd rather not have wasted all that time, (c) I haven't come across another example of the legitimate intertextuality quite like this one, so it wouldn't be easy to find another example and use that instead and (d) the sentences containing plagiarised fragments make up a very, very small proportion of the whole novel.

However, if the fragments of text match those in the EB, what the author did was wrong, and I don't want to let plagiarism pass uncriticised, so although I want to keep in what I've written about the interesting and good bit of the novel, I feel I should acknowledge the big problem in that other section, even though it's not directly relevant to the issue I wanted to write about. I'm currently favouring a compromise solution, which is to footnote the problem. Or would it just be sufficient for me to name and shame the author by posting the passages here, on the blog? Should I boycott her work completely? If I do, should I also boycott all romances which are problematic in other ways (e.g. racist novels or novels written by authors who've done something highly unethical)? Does exposing the problem in this way raise awareness of plagiarism, whereas boycotting an old text and refusing to write about it at all would be a meaningless gesture given that the book has pretty much already been forgotten by most people? Does raising the issue by giving specific instance of it in the romance genre make the genre as a whole look bad? I don't think so, since all kinds of genres, including literary fiction, have had plagiarism scandals.

What do you think?

The painting is of a fresco by Raphael in the Vatican, and is titled "The School of Athens." Many of the figures depict famous philosophers. I found the photo at Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Eric on Love and Romance

Eric's at Romancing the Blog today. He's been in
conversation with a literary critic I’ve been trying to lure into studying popular romance. He’s a scholar of what he calls “literary erotic romance,” a genre that seems able to include poetry, fiction, and film [...] as long as it concerns what he calls “the impossibility of gratifying our desire.” We want too much, and are overwhelmed; we want the wrong things, and they destroy us; we want what we can’t have, and are left hungry; when we get what we want we don’t desire it anymore, or it leaves us behind. This, says he, is “the truth about love,” or at least the truth about eros.
Eric, however, sees things differently: "romance fiction also tells a 'truth about love': one that may not have the intellectual pedigree that his does, or the rhetorical grandeur, or the cachet, but that deserves a hearing nonetheless." And Eric's heartened by some recent scientific findings about love from Stony Brook University. Here's a description of them from one of the sources Eric read:
A team from Stony Brook University in New York scanned the brains of couples who had been together for 20 years and compared them with those of new lovers. They found that about one in 10 of the mature couples exhibited the same chemical reactions when shown photographs of their loved ones as people commonly do in the early stages of a relationship.

Previous research suggested that the first stages of romantic love, a rollercoaster ride of mood swings and obsessions that psychologists call limerence, start to fade within 15 months. After 10 years the chemical tide has ebbed away.

The scans of some of the long-term couples, however, revealed that elements of limerence mature, enabling them to enjoy what a new report calls “intensive companionship and sexual liveliness”.

The researchers nicknamed the couples “swans” because they have similar mental “love maps” to animals that mate for life such as swans, voles and grey foxes. (from The Times)1

1 I wrote a post last year in which I mentioned this line of research into the science of love and I've also got a bit more there about the love lives of voles.

The photo is of a "Pair of black swans with their cygnets on the lake of the University of York, England," it was taken by RobertG, and came from Wikimedia Commons. Eric prefers the foxes to the swans, but I couldn't find a photo of two foxes. However, I did find a nice photo of just one grey fox, which looks like it's tracking down something (albeit probably not the truth about love).

Friday, January 09, 2009

Branching Out?

Eric Selinger

Last Wednesday, Jessica wrote a fascinating post about the moral issues raised by a scene in the romantic comedy Love, Actually. To be honest, this movie made me deeply angry the first time I saw it. Several of its interwoven plots felt thin, manipulative, or simply cruel, and I've never given it another go. But two aspects of Jessica's piece have me thinking.

First off, there's the genre issue, or maybe we should call it the issue of medium. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense that Jessica should blog about a movie, since the readership of romance fiction and the viewership of romantic movies clearly overlaps. And, selfishly, the more romance scholars talk about movies the more good tips I'll find for padding my Netflix queue! (Cute Norwegian comedy last night: Buddy, with Nicolai Cleve Broch as a cute Norwegian.)

On the other hand, since getting involved with romance fiction, I've been focused on how much still needs to be done with these novels as novels: how much more attention they deserve as works of literature, rather than as sociological facts or psychological symptoms. (Not that they shouldn't be studied every way imaginable, six ways from Sunday--I'm just saying that the literary side has been particularly neglected.)

So what do y'all think? Do folks who study the Western switch hit from fiction to film? What about mystery, SF, and so on? Leaving aside blogging for a moment, should the calls for papers we write for academic conferences--Popular Culture Association, the Brisbane conference, etc.--be for papers on popular romance fiction, or on popular romance tout court? (Tish! You spoke French! Now that was a couple. "Everything I know About Romance, I Learned from the Addams Family," as a now-vanished on-line essay once put it. BUT they were a couple in a TV show, with no story arc to call their own. Do they belong in the discourse of romance scholarship--and if so, where?)

The second issue of interest in Jessica's post is the question of moral reasoning in romance. There is, of course, a long tradition of thinking about love as--at its most intense, anyway--somehow beyond good and evil. Sadly, I have to run and teach my Love Poetry class, so I'll come back to that topic on another day. Let me know what you think of the Question of Medium. Calls for papers--and my future courses--may depend upon it!


Morticia: So... you still desire me after all these years? The old ball and chain?
Gomez: Forever!
Morticia: I'll get them!

Morticia: Gomez.
Gomez: Querida?
Morticia: Last night you were unhinged. You were like some desperate, howling demon. You frightened me. Do it again!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

On a Break due to Culture Shock

Laura Vivanco
  • Oh come on, you know you’ve wondered about this too…you’re reading a really great romance, it’s the morning after the big love scene, the hero rolls over and tries to feel for the heroine’s tonsils with his tongue and all you can think is…ew, morning breath! (Angela James, at Romancing the Blog, 2008)

  • "She was the most normal woman on the planet. Her idea of wild living was to pay for a pedicure instead of doing it herself" (heroine of Susan Mallery's The Sheik and The Virgin Secretary, quoted by me during a discussion at Dear Author)
  • As you can readily tell from commercials, Americans have been taught that the natural smells of people's bodies and breath are unpleasant. Most Americans bathe or shower daily (or more often if they engage in vigorous exercise), use an underarm deodorant, and brush their teeth at least twice a day. In addition, they may rinse with a mouthwash or chew mints or gum in order to be sure their breath is free of food odors. They will not wear the same clothes more than once during a week, often discarding them to be washed after one use.

    It is common for women to shave their legs and underarms and to use a small quantity of perfume every day. (New York University's Office for International Students and Scholars, page on "The American body")
  • I recently re-read Linda Howard's Midnight Rainbow. My first reading was when it came out in 1988. I could not remember any of it but found it just OK. The heroine and her rescuer are being chased, and nearly caught, in the jungles of central America and at one point spend the night in someone's home. The heroine has a bath and shaves her legs and underarms. Now I find this rather a rather silly thing to do when you are being chased for your life.

    I have noticed this 'shaving of legs' in odd circumstances happening in other books and it makes me think of the heroines as people with their priorities wrong. (Sally in Scotland, (from Scotland, UK) posting to AAR, in 2009)
  • It's a book by an American author featuring presumably an American heroine. And in the US (going by your username, I assume you're not from the US), removing one's body hair is much more de rigeur than in Europe, as you can probably tell by some of the comments here. So to this American heroine, her priorities are not screwed up at all - body hair actually does make her feel dirty.

    Had I read the book and come across this scene, I would probably have rolled my eyes and thought, "Look. The American obsession with body hair strikes again."

    But then, Linda Howard does have a tendency to go a bit too much into details regarding body image issues that can be alienating to non-American readers. In the otherwise fine Cover of Night, for example, not only is there an anachronistic sex scene in a cave in the woods in the middle of a snowstorm, while the hero and heroine are running for their life (well, at least they did keep warm that way, though I still think they should have waited till they got to safety), there is also a detailed description of the hero's circumcised penis - an instant turnoff when you happen to come from a country where circumcisions are only performed for religious reasons and thus pretty rare. (reply to Sally in Scotland by Cora (from Germany), at AAR)
  • Why is it the case (and I’m generalising here) that British women spend so little time and effort on looking after them-selves? Take, for example, Helena Bonham Carter, a spectacular example of the English rose. And yet she is regularly photographed looking like a bag of spanners. Can you imagine a similar photo of the American equivalent, say Michelle Pfeiffer? Absolutely not.

    As with many societal ills, I blame the parents. British mothers do not instruct their daughters the way American mothers do. In the US, beauty treatments appear to be a large part of their growing-up experience. A trip to the beauty salon is a group event for girls, an opportunity for a gossip and a catchup. (Ted Safran (an American), writing in The Times, in 2007)
  • So if I were to go on a date with him I’d be supposed to be tweaked, groomed, waxed, tanned, yoga-ed, facial-ed etc at a cost of around £350 a month, and his equivalent would be a clean shirt, a shave and a tooth-brush?

    Yeah, *that’s* a guy I’d be interested in pursuing a relationship with. (response to Safran's article by Imogen Howsen (from the UK), at the Smart Bitches)
  • Effie [the wife of John Ruskin] accepted her husband's explanations for the lack of physical love.

    She told her father in 1854 that she had "never been told the duties of married persons to each other and [knew] little or nothing about their relations in the closest union on earth".

    Eventually, her husband confessed. "He had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was ... he was disgusted by my person," she recalled.

    In other words, Ruskin, the high arbiter of mid-Victorian artistic taste, was consumed with the smooth-curved ideal of womanhood objectified in the classical statues of his beloved Italy and was revolted by Effie's pubic hair. (2007 article in The Independent)

The photo is from Wikimedia Commons and is of a "Statue of the type of the Capitoline Venus. Marble, Roman copy of ca. 100-150 CE after a Hellenistic variant of the Cnidian Venus. Excavated in 1794 by Robert Fagan at Campo Iemini, near Torvaianica, Lazio, Italy."

Sunday, January 04, 2009

More on Politics and Romance

I've written about politics and romance before, particularly here but also in two separate posts about individual romances. I'm returning to the topic because RfP asked me a question elsewhere which (a) would be difficult to respond to in a short space there and (b) which I thought perhaps some readers of TMT could help me answer.

I'll give a bit of background first. Jessica had been asking for recommendations and one commenter suggested she might like to read Loreth Anne White's Seducing the Mercenary. I responded by commenting that
Having read the reviews [...] I wonder if there’s any exploration in the novel of the underlying political situation and whether the US’s involvement constitutes neo-imperialism. The situation, as described in one review, is as follows: “It is up to Emily [the heroine] to determine whether Jean-Charles [Laroque, who's the hero], a former mercenary who arrived in Ubasi [a fictional African state] a year earlier and ousted the dictator, should be captured or assassinated” and Emily “is working with the United States to bring the former dictator back into power, and it will be Emily’s profile that decides what needs to be done with Laroque.”
RfP, who had read the novel, responded that
I’d venture to guess that the answer is overall no, or perhaps mixed. It’s a complicated setup for such a short book, so most of it doesn’t get explored. [...]

In terms of politics, I’m sorry to laugh, but I do a bit when I try to imagine a Silhouette exploring “the underlying political situation and whether the US’s involvement constitutes neo-imperialism” in much depth. Mind you, the heroine isn’t a conscienceless drone, and I appreciate seeing a romance heroine in such a significant position, but there’s not a lot of space for a twist that deeply questions the initial premise. [...]

Do you disagree with my skepticism on category romance tackling this scale of political theme? I tend to expect that in science fiction more than in romance; and within romance, I expect more in that regard (though I often don’t get it) when I read single-title (i.e. longer) romantic suspense and historicals. Have I missed out on an interesting trend since I don’t read much category romance these days?
First of all, the reference to science fiction reminded me of Lois McMaster Bujold's speech about science fiction romance (which I came across via a post at the Smart Bitches):

There are indeed problems for this Odd Couple partnership between SF and Romance, but subtly not, or not only, the ones I necessarily thought. I certainly learned some lessons about how genre boundaries are maintained not only by publishers but by their readerships. [...]

I was more surprised to learn something new to me about fantasy and science fiction -- which is how profoundly, intensely, relentlessly political most of the stories in these genres are. The politics may be archaic or modern, fringe or realistic, naive or subtle, optimistic or dire, but by gum the characters had better be centrally engaged with them, for some extremely varied values of "engaged". Even the world-building itself is often a political argument. [...]

Romance and SF seemed to occupy two different focal planes [...]. For any plot to stay central, nothing else in the book can be allowed to be more important. So romance books carefully control the scope of any attending plot, so as not to overshadow its central concern, that of building a relationship between the key couple, one that will stand the test of time and be, in whatever sense, fruitful. This also explains some SF's addiction to various end-of-the-world plots, for surely nothing could be more important than that, which conveniently allows the book to dismiss all other possible concerns, social, personal, or other. (Nice card trick, that, but now I've seen it slipped up the sleeve I don't think it'll work on me anymore.)

In fact, if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency. All three genres also may embody themes of personal psychological empowerment, of course, though often very different in the details, as contrasted by the way the heroines "win" in romances, the way detectives "win" in mysteries, and the way, say, young male characters "win" in adventure tales. [...]

So the two genres -- Romance and SF -- would seem to be arm-wrestling about the relative importance of the personal and the political. [...]

So: is the personal political? It does explain the edginess of the mutual rejection between the communities of taste of SF and Romance -- each is in effect rejecting the others' judgment of what is the most important aspect of the world, which naturally gets danders up. My own view is that the political sits atop the personal as upon a disregarded foundation; the concerns of higher status could not even begin to exist without a hell of a lot of unsung and often unpaid or underpaid work being done, and not just by women, to keep the real world running. To even acknowledge the debt would be to court bankruptcy, so it is carefully ignored.
I'd tend to agree with Bujold's view of the relationship between the personal and the political, because I see the personal (in romances this is primarily the romantic relationship) as taking place in a social, and therefore political (in the broadest sense, not party political) context.

Although RfP's probably right that political issues aren't generally tackled in any depth in romances, that doesn't stop me reading between the lines of the romance in order to catch glimpses of the political. And then there are the romances which, like White's novel, include situations or comments which are quite overtly political, even if the author doesn't explore the politics in much detail. I'm certainly not the only person to notice the politics in some romances. C. J. D. Duder notes that "The study of popular imperialism, how the British Empire was represented to the British people, is now popular among historians" (427). Duder's focus is on Kenya and "It was just as the political battles over white settlement in Kenya were heating up that a minor literary phenomenon, popularly known as the 'Kenya Novel,' began to appear in British bookstores. This was a variety of that much despised popular literary genre, Romantic Fiction" (428). Duder identifies these novels as having had an "immense, if indirect, propaganda value [...] to the position of white settlement in the Colony" (431) because
Riddell and Strange used their novels as a means of presenting the white settler view of Kenya to British readers. The settlers themselves, whatever their personal failings, are collectively responsible for the railways, roads, hospitals and schools, progress in other words, which the twentieth century has brought to Africa. They are the civilization in the Dark Continent. (432)
But what of more recent romances? To what extent can and do they include politics? Melissa James has written that the inspiration for one of her novels, Her Galahad (a Silhouette Intimate Moments, reviewed here), was
My university course in Aboriginal History in 1999. I read about the Stolen Generation, ‘half-caste’ children forcibly taken from their parents and either illegally adopted out or sent to orphanages to become Anglicized in culture. I was shocked at the extent to which the governments of the day were willing to go to do this. Such as giving the kids fake death certificates for their parents so they wouldn’t return to their homes. Such as imprisoning the parents on fake charges to get them out of the way. I had to write about it, using all those ideas plus other truths that my abuse counselor mother gave to me, to show just how life is for many who are perceived as “different” in society – and the last documented case of this kind was in 1987, so it wasn’t that long ago.
Another Silhouette Intimate Moments romance which devotes a sizeable (by romance standards) amount of attention to politics is Suzanne Brockmann's Get Lucky. Lucky, the hero, is asked by the heroine why he decided to join the SEALs (151) and he points to a photo and says "This [...] is Isidro Ramos. He's why I joined the SEALs" (152). He goes on to explain that his mother
started working full time for a refugee center. This was back when people were leaving Central America in droves. That's where she met Isidro - at the center. [...] Isidro later told me he'd been out trading for gasoline on the black market, and when he came home, his entire town had been burned and everyone - men, women and children, even infants - had been massacred. (154)
"[...] I used to go with him to meetings where he would tell about these horrible human rights violations he'd witnessed in his home country. The things he saw, [...] the things he could bear witness to ..." He shook his head. "He told me to value my freedom as an American above all else. Every day he reminded me that I lived in a land of freedom, every day we'd hang an American flag outside our house. He used to tell me that he could go to sleep at night and be certain that no one would break into our house and tear us from our beds. No one would drag us into the street and put bullets in our heads simply for something we believed in. Because of him, I learned to value the freedom that most Americans take for granted. [...] I joined the Navy - the SEAL teams in particular - because I wanted to give something back. I wanted to be part of making sure we remained the land of the free and the home of the brave. [...]"(157-58)
What I think is happening here (and was also happening in Betina Krahn's The Book of True Desires, which I looked at a while ago) is that the novel is contributing to the construction of, or reinforcing an existing model of, American identity. That's a deeply political project. In this particular case I found it impossible not to think about alternative views of American history in relation to Latin America which were left unspoken by the hero and unwritten about by the author. Greg Grandin has observed that
After World War II, in the name of containing Communism, the United States, mostly through the actions of local allies, executed or encouraged coups in, among other places, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina and patronized a brutal mercenary war in Nicaragua. Latin America became a laboratory for counterinsurgency, as military officials and covert operators applied insights learned in the region to Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. By the end of the Cold War, Latin American security forces trained, funded, equipped, and incited by Washington had executed a reign of bloody terror -- hundreds of thousands killed, an equal number tortured, millions driven into exile -- from which the region has yet to fully recover. (4)
As I suggested earlier, sometimes, at least for a reader like me, the politics seeps out from between the lines of a romance, and at others it moves quite directly into view, making its presence felt much more acutely.

Have any of you come across examples of romances, particularly category romances, where politics stepped out from behind the central relationship and captured your attention?

The pictures are of "The 'Glasses Apostle' in the altarpiece of the church of Bad Wildungen (Germany). Painted by Conrad von Soest in 1403, the 'Glasses Apostle' is considered the oldest depiction of eyeglasses north of the Alps" (from Wikimedia Commons) and Franz Eybl's "Lesendes Mädchen," (also from Wikimedia Commons). In my journey around Wikimedia Commons I also came across the cover of this comic book, and as it probably embodies many readers' ideas about the worst possible fusion of science fiction and romance, I couldn't resist including it too. Its title is Rocket to the Moon and the description reads "Could Ted Dustin, rocket explorer, and Maza, beautiful princess of Lunar, stem the powerful hordes of Green Monsters who sought to conquer the world?"