Friday, October 30, 2009

Call for Papers: Romance Fiction and American Culture

Romance Fiction and American Culture:

Love as the Practice of Freedom?

Edited by William Gleason and Eric Selinger

Call for Proposals and Essays

Last April, Princeton University hosted a groundbreaking two-day conference on popular romance fiction and American culture. Gathering scholars, authors, editors, and bloggers, this interdisciplinary gathering featured panels on romance and history (both political and literary), romance and religion, romance and sexuality, and romance and race. Each explored the ways that popular romance fiction has reflected, and also helped shape, American culture from the late 18th century to the present.

Conference organizers William Gleason (Princeton) and Eric Selinger (DePaul University) now invite proposals for a collection of essays that will build on the work of the conference: Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom? We welcome proposals from academic scholars from any field—American literature, popular culture, religion, women's and gender studies, African American Studies, or any other relevant discipline—as well as from authors, editors, and other members of the romance community who wish to reflect on their practice in light of the volume’s concerns.

We are eager to consider proposals or abstracts on the relationships between popular romance fiction and

  • the history of reading in America, from Pamela to the present
  • American cultures of sexuality, masculinity, and femininity
  • American religious cultures, in Christian and other traditions
  • Race, ethnicity, and exogamous desire
  • “High” culture: literary fiction, poetry, visual art, etc.
  • Other popular genres: mystery / detective fiction, Science Fiction and Fantasy, non-romance bestsellers, chick-lit
  • Other popular media: film, comics, music, gaming
  • The culture of sport (football, baseball, NASCAR, etc.)
  • American political / military culture, from the early Republic to the present
  • American psychological / therapeutic / self-help culture

We also hope for papers on the romance industry in America and the diverse community of romance readers, authors, and reviewers, both as they are and as they are represented in the media:

  • Romance sub-genres—Western, Gothic, Regency, Medieval, Paranormal (vampire, were, empath, etc.), Futuristic/time travel, Multi-cultural, Erotic, Gay/lesbian, etc.—and their shifting appeal to readers
  • American romance and other traditions: comparative studies, texts in translation, transnational encounters
  • Romance publishing: major presses, series and lines, the rise in e-publishing
  • Representations of American romance writers, readers, bloggers, book groups, conventions, etc.

Detailed abstract or draft essay and a short CV are due by January 4, 2010. Final essays will be due in June, 2010. We are happy to answer any inquiries. Please feel free to post and / or forward this email to interested colleagues, students, or friends.

Prof. William Gleason,

Prof. Eric Selinger,

Studies Show ... That Eric's Got a New Post Up

Eric's over at Romancing the Blog today, taking some studies with a pinch of salt and receiving encouragement from others:
it’s got me thinking–not at all scientifically–about one of the novels I taught for the first time this quarter, here at DePaul: Laura Kinsale’s Prince of Midnight.

As the novel ends, our hero and heroine, S.T. Maitland and Leigh Strachan, are trying to figure out what love means, or at least what their love means, and why S.T. should stay with Leigh, despite the flaws that he thinks forbid him to marry her.

“What can I give you in return?” he demands of her. “Give me your joy,” she responds. “Give me all your mad notions and your crazy heroics and your impossible romantical follies. And I’ll be your anchor. I’ll be your balance. I’ll be your family. I won’t let you fall.”

Studies have shown that this is one of the most moving betrothal scenes in all of romance. OK, maybe no one’s studied that. But the notion that one test of a couple is how they deal with differential happiness, spreading the wealth, rings deeply true to me.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Land of Something Other than Milk and Cream

Yesterday Angela T was blogging at Romancing the Blog about how
Here we are in 2009 and the case of “separate, but equal” rules how AA romances are treated. [...] I for one feel that acknowledging the issues romance writers of color face is the first step to understanding, and ultimately, supporting the inclusion of romance writers–and characters–of all colors, creeds, and nationalities into the romance genre.
Also yesterday, over at Dear Author, Handy Hunter had up a guest post about "Cultural Appropriation in Romance." Sunita added a very detailed comment which gave examples of many different possible scenarios for historical romances set in India with Indian protagonists. The discussion is still ongoing and it broadened out from the initial topic of cultural appropriation to include examples of "issues romance writers of color face." Jade Lee wrote about her personal experience:
Harlequin recruited me into the Blaze line specifically to add a dimension of multi-culturalism to it. I’ve written 3 books for them, one historical, two contemporary, all with Asian characters. No paranormal elements. Harlequin promoted me well, especially The Concubine which was the second historical Blaze ever, not the first. I think I write good books, but The Concubine was especially good and fit perfectly with senior editor Brenda Chin’s vision for the Blaze line.

After 3 books, Harlequin considers the experiement over. The sales were extremely poor. It was not the fault of promotion or marketing. I got a TON of promotion. It was also (according to senior editor Brenda Chin and the few who read the books) not the fault of the writing.
Despite the failure of this experiment, many readers on the thread expressed their wish to read romances written by "romance writers of color" about protagonists "of color." I thought I'd add a few links to some online short stories which might fit the bill:

Shobhan Bantwal - Seeking a Six-Foot Bride about Rajesh Sanwal, who is "seeking a six-foot bride."

Barbara Caridad Ferrer - For You I Will and a sequel, about Adam Cardenas and Milagros Acevedo.

Roslyn Hardy Holcomb - Rock Star Wedding, a novella and sequel to Rock Star. If you haven't already read Rock Star, you might want to just focus on the protagonists of this novella, Naysa and Twist.

Going further back in time, I suppose one could think of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda as a romance by a white author about characters from a different racial background:
George Eliot's final novel, Daniel Deronda, was also her most controversial. Few had a problem, upon its publication in 1876, with its portrayal of yearning and repression in the English upper class. But as Eliot's lover, George Henry Lewes, had predicted: "The Jewish element seems to me likely to satisfy nobody." (Owen)
If you've got more recommendations or links, please do leave a comment.

Both illustrations come from Wikimedia Commons. The first is "Attributed to Manohar" and is from "India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1597." The second "was painted by Chang We-Che'ng who lived in the 8th and 9th centuries."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Ray Browne: Pioneer of Popular Culture

Bowling Green State University announced yesterday that
Dr. Raymond B. Browne, who was instrumental in establishing the first full-fledged department of popular culture in the United States at Bowling Green State University in 1973, died Oct. 22 at home in Bowling Green, Ohio. He was 87.

Internationally recognized as a publisher and expert in popular culture, Browne is often credited with coining the term and as being among the first to propose its serious study.
The Browne Popular Culture Library, which bears his name, includes among its many collections
a wide range of romance materials from novels to valentines. The collection includes more than 10,000 volumes of category romance series from publishers such as Harlequin, Silhouette, Loveswept, Candlelight, Ecstasy, and others. The holdings also include a sizable collection of mass market novels, including Georgian, regency, gothic, contemporary, and historicals.

Additional "romantic" items can be found in the Library's various special collections, including large holdings of ephemeral items, such as movie advertisements, posters, and press kits. A unique collection of romance publishing-house book marks and a large selection of valentines from various eras may also be found in the Browne Popular Culture Library.

In addition, the Library has manuscript collections containing correspondence, fan mail, literary manuscripts, and galley sheets from many prominent romance writers, includings Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Cathie Linz, and April Kihlstrom.
The library also holds the "RWA’s organizational archives documenting its founding [...] and following its growth into the world’s largest non-profit genre organization."

According to a "biographical sketch" of Ray Browne provided by the Browne Popular Culture Library
He received his PhD in American literature, folklore and history from UCLA in 1956. He accepted a position in the English department at the University of Maryland. While at Maryland his interest in American Studies expanded after meeting Carl Bode, one of the founders of the American Studies Association. Bode was part of a growing number of scholars who believed that academia needed inter and multi-disciplinary approaches to the study of the humanities and of literature. Browne embraced this view.

After not receiving tenure at the University of Maryland, he assumed a post in the English department at Purdue in 1960. Between 1965 and 1966 he was instrumental in arranging two Purdue conferences intended to broaden the traditionally narrow approach to studying culture. Browne would remain at Purdue until Bowling Green State University offered him a folklore professorship in 1967. In 1968 research facilities began to emerge as the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and the Popular Culture Library. In 1970 the Popular Press was established. Gradually he introduced a popular culture curriculum into his folklore classes, creating much unpopularity within the English department. This in turn would lead to the establishment in 1971-1972 of a separate Department of Popular Culture at BGSU chaired by Ray Browne. After being away for a year at the University of Maryland, he returned to BGSU in 1976 and remained until his retirement in 1992.
An obituary at CBC News recounts that
"Culture is everything from the food we've always eaten to the clothes we've always worn," he said in a 2003 interview with The Associated Press.

While many in the field credit Browne with coming up the name "popular culture," no one could say for sure whether he originated it. He said he made a mistake in 1967 when he first used the phrase.

"If I had called it everyday culture or democratic culture, it would not have been so sharply criticized," he said.
Initially, as mentioned in another obituary, this time in the Telegraph,
Professors at universities nationwide thought Browne, an English professor, was trying to demean or trivialise what they were teaching when he founded the popular culture department.

But he insisted that interest was genuinely rooted in finding out how society affects culture, and how culture affects society. The concept of popular culture as an object of study has been embraced worldwide, and it is commonly taught as part of a range of university courses.
He was interviewed in 2002 by Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture and
provided us with our most thorough and lasting definition of popular culture:

Popular culture is the way of life in which and by which most people in any society live. [...] It is the everyday world around us: the mass media, entertainments, and diversions. It is our heroes, icons, rituals, everyday actions, psychology, and religion — our total life picture. It is the way of living we inherit, practice and modify as we please, and how we do it. It is the dreams we dream while asleep.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Robert Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love

I've mentioned another of Robert J. Sternberg's theories about love here already, but since I've been asking what the truth is about love, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at Sternberg's triangular theory of love, illustrated in graphic form above. He tried to answer a number of questions:
What does it mean "to love" someone? Does it always mean the same thing, and if not, in what ways do loves differ from each other? Why do certain loves seem to last, whereas others disappear almost as quickly as they are formed? (119)
His response was the triangular theory which
holds that love can be understood in terms of three components that together can be viewed as forming the vertices of a triangle. These three components are intimacy (the top vertex of the triangle), passion (the left-hand vertex of the triangle), and decision/commitment (the right-hand vertex of the triangle). (The assignment of components to vertices is arbitrary.) Each of these three terms can be used in many different ways so it is important at the outset to clarify their meanings in the context of the present theory.
The intimacy component refers to feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness in loving relationships. [...]
The passion component refers to the drives that lead to romance, physical attraction, sexual consummation, and related phenomena in loving relationships. [...]
The decision/commitment component refers to, in the short term, the decision that one loves someone else, and in the long term, the commitment to maintain that love. The decision/commitment component thus includes within its purview the cognitive elements that are involved in decision making about the existence of and potential long-term commitment to a loving relationship. (119)
These three kinds of love can be appear in different combinations and quantities in any given relationship, so for example if only the passion component is present, Sternberg would classify this as "Infatuated love. Infatuated love is "love at first sight." Infatuated love, or simply, infatuation, results from the experiencing of passionate arousal in the absence of the intimacy and decision/commitment components of love" (124). On a different point of the triangle we find "Empty love [...] the kind of love one sometimes finds in stagnant relationships that [...] have lost both the mutual emotional involvement and physical attraction that once characterized them" (124) but "in societies where marriages are arranged, the marital partners may start with the commitment to love each other, or to try to love each other, and not much more. Such relationships point out how empty love [...] can be the beginning rather than the end" (124).

For Sternberg, the "kind of love toward which many of us strive, especially in romantic relationships" (124) is "Consummate love. Consummate, or complete, love results from the full combination of the three components" (124). Unfortunately, some romance novels may fail to convince readers that all three components are present in the central relationship. Although the couple may seem passionately attracted to each other and have made a commitment to marry by the end of the novel, this may not be sufficient to ensure that the reader believes in the happy ending. Or, to put it in Sternberg's terms, the reader may not be convinced that the couple are experiencing "consummate love." Rather, the reader may feel that the couple are in the throes of
Fatuous love. Fatuous love results from the combination of the passion and decision/commitment components in the absence of the intimacy component. It is the kind of love we sometimes associate with Hollywood, or with whirlwind courtships, in which a couple meets on Day X, gets engaged two weeks later, and marries the next month. It is fatuous in the sense that a commitment is made on the basis of passion without the stabilizing element of intimate involvement. (124)
Of course it is possible for "fatuous love" to develop into "consummate love" and some readers may be happy to assume that it will, but other readers may well want to be given evidence that "consummate love" exists before they will believe in the happy ending. Snitow, writing about romances in the late 1970s, wrote that
After one hundred and fifty pages of mystification, unreadable looks, "hints of cruelty" and wordless coldness, the thirty-page denouement is powerless to dispell the earlier impression of menace. Why should this heroine marry this man? And, one can ask with equal reason, why should this hero marry this woman? These endings do not ring true. (250-251)
I'd suggest that perhaps they did not "ring true" for Snitow because the "thirty-page denouement" rapidly converted "infatuated love" into "fatuous love" but left her entirely unconvinced that the couple had the necessary intimacy to achieve "consummate love."1

Cohn, however, has suggested that often sexual responses are intended to be read as proof of a deeper, emotional connection:
The formulaic discovery that the heroine's sexual response to the hero proves her love for him is critical to the strategies of romance fiction. For one thing, it provokes an a posteriori moral alibi for her earlier eroticism; her response to the hero was, after all, a response out of love. More important, it enlists sexuality under the banner of love, subduing sex itself to the ends of love. Female sexuality, though it may have been elicited by male sexuality, has its own character as handmaiden to love. (Cohn 29)
More recent romances have, in general, become rather more explicit about the passionate aspects of romantic relationships. In fact, in a review at AAR of Julia James's Just the Sexiest Man Alive the reviewer commented that, "in a shocking twist, there’s no sex – and I really mean that – and I definitely felt the lack. For a book being marketed as a romance, it’s an odd choice." Other reviewers also felt the need to warn readers about this aspect of the novel: "I feel I should warn you that there isn't ANY sex in the book. I mean, it's mentioned but we get no details" (Rowena, at The Book Binge). Clearly a lot of modern romance readers want to have detailed proof that the characters are not merely experiencing "Companionate love. This kind of love evolves from a combination of the intimacy and decision/commitment components of love. It is essentially a long-term, committed friendship" (Sternberg 124).

But explicit or not, and whether a romance features a sexually experienced heroine or a virginal one who's awakened to her sexuality by a mere kiss, there can be a tendency for passion to be read as an indicator of True Love in a way which obliterates the distinction between emotional and sexual intimacy and reminds me of Betty Everett's Shoop Shoop song:

I'm not convinced that intimacy can be detected "in his kiss" or even in the most intense of multiple orgasms, and far from being easy to write, the equilateral triangle of "consummate love" poses a considerable challenge to authors.2

  • Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1988.
  • Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61. Rpt. in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review P., 1983. 245-63.
  • Sternberg, Robert J. "A Triangular Theory of Love." Psychological Review 93.2 (1986): 119-135.

1 This suggestion is strengthened by Snitow's statement that "When women try to imagine companionship, the society offers them one vision, male, sexual companionship" (252). In other words, the intimacy required for consummate love is lacking in these representations of romantic relationships, but passion is not.

2 As Sternberg points out, there can be a lot of variations in the triangles produced:
The geometry of the love triangle depends upon two factors: amount of love and balance of love [...] differences in area represent differences in amounts of love experienced [...]: the larger the triangle, the greater the amount of experienced love. [...] Shape of the triangle. [...] The equilateral triangle [...] represents a balanced love in which all three components of love are roughly equally matched. [...] a scalene triangle pointing to the left side, represents a relationship in which the passion component of love is emphasized over the others [...] By varying both the area and the shape of the triangle of love, it becomes possible to represent a wide variety of different kinds of relationships. (128)

Graphic from Wikipedia.

Friday, October 09, 2009

O Tell Me the Truth About Love

I borrowed that line from W. H. Auden

but it's something I've been pondering recently, in part because I've recently come across quite a few comments about, and descriptions of, love, but also because "The International Association for the Study of Popular Romance is dedicated to fostering and promoting the scholarly exploration of all popular representations of romantic love." My research has tended to focus on some of the texts which make up a genre which is defined by the centrality of romantic love, and I only occasionally want to focus my analysis on the "representations of romantic love" in those texts. Today, although I would like to discuss "romantic love," but none of the texts which have made me think about the nature of romantic love recently were romance novels.

Lazaraspaste's blog, That Bitch Goddess, Love, takes its name "from a William James quote from a letter to H.G. Wells. Love is far more of a bitch than success ever could be" and she
postulate[s] three kinds of pairings off:

1. Looks Like It’s About Time I Got Married and Bred [...]
2. Companions in Mind Boggling Dysfunction [...]
3. The Companionate Marriage Which hardly ever happens and even when it does, it can look from the outside like either #1 or #2 depending on the day
I suppose the relationship between Harry Smith, a Brigade Major during the Peninsular war, and his wife Juana, might fall into the third category, and he certainly distinguishes it from other marriages (which I suppose one could place in the first category). Here he's describing his reaction on being told that Juana (from whom he'd been parted for a few months, while he was posted to fight in America, and she stayed in London) is well:
It is difficult to decide whether excess of joy or of grief is the most difficult to bear; but seven years' fields of blood had not seared my heart or blunted my naturally very acute feelings, and I burst into a flood of tears. "Oh, thank Almighty God." Soon I was in Panton Square, with my hand on the window of the coach, looking for the number, when I heard a shriek, "Oh Dios, la mano de mi Enrique!"1 Never shall I forget that shriek; never shall I forget the effusion of our gratitude to God, as we held each other in an embrace of love few can ever have known, cemented by every peculiarity of our union and the eventful scenes of our lives. Oh! you who enter into holy wedlock for the sake of connexions–tame, cool, amiable, good, I admit–you cannot feel what we did. That moment of our lives was worth the whole of your apathetic ones for years. We were unbounded in love for each other, and in gratitude to God for all His mercies. (from Harry Smith's autobiography)
Harry certainly seemed to think that his love for Juana was of a special and rare kind, but I wonder how many people think that the romantic love they're experiencing is boring and commonplace? Is the perception of uniqueness something induced by the experience of romantic love itself, or is it an accurate and realistic perception? Is this kind of marriage rare?

Lazaraspaste also writes that
The truth is that because love requires an upheaval both of social norms and personal comfort, that to love anyone, whether beloved or friend, mother or child, neighbor or enemy, is an act so difficult that the cynical are justified in questioning if love is even possible.
I can see how sometimes love "requires an upheaval both of social norms and personal comfort" but I don't think this can be the case for everyone, every time they fall in love in a category 3 kind of way. Over at Read React Review, though, a comment by Janine seemed to suggest that at the very least falling in love causes upheaval for the person doing the falling:
To me “Alpha and Omega” was all about the scary aspect of falling in love. I find falling in love frightening in real life, because one doesn’t know the other person well yet in the falling in love stage of relationships, and yet that person has become so important to me, so much the center of my world. Should I trust them? Should I trust my feelings for them? Where do these sudden, powerful feelings come from? Will they ever go away? Do I want them to go away? Do I want this other person to go away, or will I feel like dying if they ever leave me?
For me, that is what falling in love feels like
Does everyone find falling in love frightening? I have the impression that a lot of romance heroes do, because they fear commitment, but perhaps this may be because many of them fall in love deeply, all at once, and fear that once in it's too late to get out, because "Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds" (Shakespeare, Sonnet 116). Friends-to-lovers storylines, however, would tend to suggest the possibility that romantic love can develop gradually, between people who do know each other well, and so their love does change, from the love of friends to romantic love.

In addition to differing accounts of the process of falling in love, we can have very different protagonists. Harry Smith's autobiography was published posthumously in 1903 but Juana was only fourteen at the time of her marriage in 1812, which may shock and horrify many modern readers of her story, but at the time she would have been deemed old enough: "In the UK, the age of sexual consent for women has been set at 16 since 1885, when campaigners fought to raise it from 13 to prevent child prostitution" (BBC). Their story (which forms a very significant portion of Georgette Heyer's The Spanish Bride) might therefore seem unromantic to many modern readers, but Harry writes that when he first saw her she "inspired me with a maddening love which, from that period to this (now thirty-three years), has never abated under many and the most trying circumstances" (Chapter 8). His experience seems in stark contrast to comments I've seen on romance blogs which state that the happy endings for teenage heroines seem unrealistic. According to figures given at Dear Author (but I have no idea where they got them from), "The average age of heroine in U.S. romance novels is between 24-26 (and possibly younger in historical romance)." My impression is that heroes tend to be older than heroines. If there are certain age-ranges at which it is deemed most appropriate for heroes and heroines to find true love and which make their happy endings more believable, I wonder what the reasons are behind them. Is it possible that some readers feel that teenagers will alter too much for their love not to alter too?

And once a couple has discovered that their love is mutual and there are no impediments to them expressing that love, how should they behave towards, and feel about, each other? Again, there are differing opinions. Here's James Cobham in Steven Brust and Emma Bull's Freedom & Necessity, writing to his lover, Susan:
My companionship with you, my Goddess, seems to be as much a state of ethical house-cleaning as it is an exaltation of the spirit and a carnival of the body. Do you doubt the last two? Never doubt them. You are the fire in my nerves and blood; the heat and smoke of that burning tempers my courage and clears my vision, until I feel almost that I can see into this solid world to its theoretical bones, the shape theology calls its soul. This is the first experience of my life that makes me question what I have always believed: that death stops everything that we are, and uncreates us down to the last atom. This one thing, my feeling for you, seems too large and strong to be extinguished by the mere breaking of the box of flesh and bone that holds it. If anything is left of me after the end of my life, it will be this.
There is, I think, an assumption that romantic love is universal, and the entitlement of every human being. If what I feel for you is romantic love, I am inclined to doubt the assumption, or at least its definitions. Or is love properly defined as the urge to mate, marry, and procreate, and this staggering experience of mine something else, an uncommon frame for those things, bearing some other name? (513)
Again, there seems to be a comparison being made here between what the lover feels and Lazaraspaste's Type 1 relationship. And although I've not seen it phrased that way before, the idea of the beloved encouraging "ethical house-cleaning" isn't uncommon in romances, either, since so many heroic romance rakes are redeemed/reformed by love. James continues, however, by rejecting several popular ideas about romantic love
How can I explain this? You are not an extension of myself; a pen is an extension of myself, having life only because I've picked it up, passive, unmoving unless moved. You are not my mirror; are there people who want to look at their lovers and see nothing but themselves? You are not my conscience, my muse, or the sanctifying angel of my hearth - don't laugh, Susan, you've read that kind of nonsense in the penny-press, too. [...] No, I can't explain it, other than to say that I'm required to deal with you as I would like to deserve to be dealt with. (514-15)
James' final sentence seems to offer a remarkably gender-free and egalitarian ideal of their relationship, which is keeping with both his philosophical and political leanings, and Susan's objection to marriage: she has told him that she has "no intention of marrying [...] You've concerned yourself in the cause of freedom in this country. You hate slavery. Do you know the laws regarding marriage in England? [...] Some of them are not in the husband's power to ignore" (233).

Christopher Stasheff, in The Warlock Enraged, offers no critique of the institution of marriage, and traditional gender roles don't seem to be challenged to any great extent in the fictional universe he's created, where even the types of magic witches and warlocks can perform is governed by their biological sex,2 but he does offer an even stronger rejection of the idea that the beloved should be a sort of "conscience." Rod Gallowglass and his wife Gwen have been married for a number of years, and have four children together, but Rod is still negotiating his relationship with her:
Rod said slowly, "[...] I've always felt Rod Gallowglass is an even better thing to be, when he's with his wife Gwen."
"Thy wife?" Simon frowned. "That hath a ring of great wrongness to it. Nay, Lord Warlock - an thou dost rely on another person for thy sense of worth, thou dost not truly believe that thou hast any. Thou shouldst enjoy her company because she is herself, and is pleasing to thee, is agreeable company - not because she is a part of thee, nor because the two of thee together make thy self a worthwhile thing to be." (232)
So, after all that I'm feeling a bit daunted, lest my feelings of love aren't exceptional, exalted, unselfish, frightening, independent, companionate etc enough. Is anyone else feeling brave enough to try to tell me the the truth about love?

1 This can be translated as "Oh God, my Harry's hand!"

2 As Rod discovered in the first book in the series, both witches and warlocks can
'[...] wish ourselves to places that we know. All the boys can fly; the girls cannot.'
Sex-linked gene, Rod thought. Aloud, he said, 'That's why they ride broomsticks?'
'Aye. Theirs is the power to make lifeless objects do their bidding. We males cannot.'
'Aha! Another linkage. Telekinesis went with the Y-chromosomes, levitation with the X.
But they could all teleport. And read minds. (93)

Friday, October 02, 2009

Realistic Happiness

In Mary Balogh's First Comes Marriage, the heroine, Vanessa, is not the most beautiful of the three Huxtable sisters. Her gift is her "ability to be happy and to spread happiness about you" (196). It is a gift she learned, or at least perfected, in the course of her short first marriage to Hedley Dew: "He taught me so much about living life one day at a time, about finding joy in small things and laughter in the face of tragedy" (376). Thus although she is far from unaware of the realities of disease, bereavement and sorrow, Vanessa always tries to find joy in life. As she says to Elliott Wallace, Viscount Lyngate,
Realism does not exclude love or joy. It is made up of those elements. [...] We should all be as realistic as I [...] Why is realism always seen as such a negative thing? Why do we find it so difficult to trust anything but disaster and violence and betrayal? Life is good. Even when good people die far too young and older people betray us, life is good. Life is what we make of it. We get to choose how we see it. (Balogh 359)
This is, I think, an argument which many romance authors have made in defence of the genre itself. Shannon McKelden, for example, relates that
While shopping with a coworker, a friend found herself being chastised for purchasing romance novels. “How can you let your children see you reading those things?” she was asked. “All those happy endings give kids such a distorted, unrealistic view of the world.” Huh? [...]

The media makes sure we all have a healthy dose of murder, mayhem and misery to start and end every day. Then, there’s the newspapers, pointing out every riot and act of religious hatred, supplemented with political scandals and racial attacks. [...] Honest, unbiased news would present the real facts — that every day, somewhere in the world, in this country, and, yes, even in our own backyards, someone saves a life, someone gives a needy child a home, and someone shares peace with their neighbor.
In rather more combative mode, Jennifer Crusie has written that
the world is full of cynical, sophisticated, seductive people who will tell you that only a romantic (and when did that word get to be a pejorative?) would believe in love and connection; that the world is a cold, cruel, heartless place; and that happy endings are unrealistic and ultimately harmful; and I think these people are snot-nosed jackasses, and it is my God-given duty to thwart and annoy them at every turn. (226)
Obviously there are a great many unrealistic elements in the romance genre, including vampires and shapeshifters, but what these romance authors are asserting is, I think, the realism of the emotionally optimistic outlook on life presented by the genre. Eric Selinger's "hunch [...] is that romance novels are often primers in positive psychology, in ways that measure up quite well against current research."
The positive psychology movement was born in 1998 when Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, was voted in as president of the American Psychological Association. In his inaugural speech, Seligman, who had worked on depression for 30 years, stunned his audience by saying psychologists had missed a trick. Rather than devoting attention to lives that had gone desperately wrong, psychologists should change tack, focusing instead on people for whom everything was going well. While psychologists knew virtually all there was to know about depression, he said, they knew almost nothing of the secrets of a happy life. Discover what they are and it might give you a recipe that people could learn to make themselves happier and more satisfied with their lives. (Sample)
Vanessa and the romance authors' view of realism and happiness back up Eric's hunch, and they do seem to be shared by a number of psychologists. Daniel Nettle, for example, has stated that
The things in modern life that cause us fear, shame, and sadness are really - by and large - not as threatening as a large carnivore. [...] our negative emotion programs, designed as they were to cope with real, ugly, Paleolithic emergencies, go off on a needless rumination of fear and worry. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, since our constant fear and worry makes us more hostile, more paranoid, less attractive, and less open to good things that might come along.
The approach known as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) works on this insight to reduce negative thoughts and feelings. (148)
Or as Vanessa puts it, in the context of Elliott's rather Darcy-like disapproval at a country ball
Viscount Lyngate, Vanessa strongly suspected, had not really enjoyed the evening at all. And it was entirely his own fault if he had not, for he had arrived expecting to be bored. That had been perfectly obvious to her. Sometimes one got exactly what one wished for. (Balogh 55)
"Nick Baylis, a psychologist at Cambridge University" (Sample) seems to agree with Vanessa on this last point. He believes that "If you're optimistic and you think life is going to get better, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy" (Sample). Elliott not only marries Vanessa, but he also eventually opens himself up to accepting her views on life and happiness and so
Their lives were to be brimful and overflowing, he suspected - and always would be.
What else could a man expect when he was married to Vanessa?
He grinned at her and set to work. (Balogh 388)

The photo is from Wikimedia Commons. You can decide for yourself if the glass is half full, or half empty!