Thursday, April 29, 2010

Reading, Ideals and Depression

In a post about ethical criticism, Jessica has outlined different possible ways in which to approach the ethical criticism of literature. In her own ethical criticism Jessica herself does not intend to examine the possible 'consequences' that reading may cause, 'for example, causing readers to accept morally salutary or problematic attitudes'. Nonetheless, she notes that

Romance readers talk a lot about the good effects of romance reading on their beliefs, attitudes and desires. They might say reading romance has helped them to be better communicators, to understand men, to demand their due from their partners, to get in touch with their sexuality, etc. That’s cool. But if we are going to do that, we also need to consider whether romances have had any negative effects. In other words, if you are going to play the “effects on readers game” you cannot rule out a priori (for example, by saying things like “Women are not just passive readers, i.e. dopes. We know the difference between fantasy and reality. Don’t infantalize and patronize us.”) any and all claims about negative effects on readers of romance novels.

Consider: how could it be that you only learned good or positive things from romance novels?

There are two options, as far as I can see. (1) Romance novels, the entire genre, only endorse good positive healthy attitudes towards gender, romance, love, sex, and everything else they take as their subjects (however those good attitudes are defined). That seems manifestly unbelievable to me, given my own experience as a romance reader, and given how large and diverse the genre is. That comes close to saying there is only one romance novel – one very morally good romance novel — and it has been written over and over.

Or (2) you know quite well that there is a lot of stuff you wouldn’t endorse in a romance novel, some of it apparently endorsed by the (implied — more on that later) author, but either (a) you don’t read those books, or (b) if you do, you don’t “learn anything” from them, because you filter the bad stuff out. Ok, but then, you aren’t “learning” anything from romance novels. Rather, you are applying a moral framework you already possess to your selection of texts, or to your reading of texts, only letting what you have already decided are “good” messages in. In that case, it would be more accurate to say that your reading of romance novels reinforces or deepens or lends specification to moral beliefs you already hold. I think that is much closer to what is really happening, personally. But if it is, then we have to accept that if a reader holds pernicious moral beliefs, she can find some warrant, some deepening, reinforcing or specifying, of those bad moral beliefs in romance novels, too.

My feeling, as I mentioned in my response to Jessica's post, is that while of course we can try to select books which don't contain material which we'd find particularly distressing and/or offensive, it's likely that we're still going to come across 'bad stuff' in many novels and I'm not at all convinced that we can succeed in filtering all of it out all of the time.

The good effects of the genre have often been described in terms related to depression and its cure:
Alan Boon, the acknowledged genius behind [...] Mills & Boon romance, admitted the restorative quality of the novels which he edited for some forty years: 'It has been said that our books could take the place of valium, so that women who take these drugs would get an equal effect from reading our novels.' (McAleer 1999: 2)
Valium, though, like most other medicines, can have some unpleasant side-effects. In other words, the 'good stuff' may also contain some 'bad stuff'.

If we turn to a recent article by Kira Cochrane about women and depression we can find the following quote from 'psychologist and author Dorothy Rowe, a leading expert on depression':
"There's still this idea that you've got to be a wonderful mother, but you also have to have a brilliant career, and you've got to look attractive all the time," she says. "There is no way that you can maintain that and bring up children. But it's still being presented to women all the time, in every magazine, on every screen, that you should."
In the same article 'The former Scotland editor of the Observer, Lorna Martin, [who] wrote Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown' is quoted as saying that:
"There's massive pressure on women these days to hold down a good, rewarding, fulfilling job, but also to be a good mother, and then to look good, and to look after yourself. I think there comes a point where your body can't take it."
In other words, it's suggested that popular culture may contribute to the creation of depression. Could romance, the 'valium' of popular culture, do this too? I suppose it depends on how much you think fiction can influence readers and whether you agree with Rowe that the depictions of women 'in every magazine, on every screen' (and, presumably, in many books) create or sustain ideals which are difficult for real women to meet, and can therefore contribute to depression. What I think is certain is that there are plenty of romances whose heroines have fulfilling jobs/hobbies/work in their communities, are (or it's implied will be) wonderful mothers, and are beautiful/well-groomed/very attractive to their spouse or partner.

Is it possible that these heroines add to the pressure on women to live up to a particular ideal of womanhood? I think they may. The presence of gender stereotypes in romances between heterosexual protagonists is something that I've seen mentioned as one of the reasons why some women may prefer to read and/or write romances between male protagonists. Unfortunately I didn't keep track of the urls where these comments were made, and I'm certainly not saying this is the main, or only reason, for the popularity of m/m romance. But if at least some readers are choosing m/m over f/m and f/f in order to avoid gender stereotypes about women, then that would be an example of how readers can filter/select their reading material in order to block out what they feel is 'bad stuff'.

Romance heroines themselves, however, rarely buckle under the pressure to succeed. As Sarah at Monkey Bear Reviews has observed,
There appear to be several taboo topics in romance novels. One of these is depression. If we assume it is something we are all likely to experience at some point in our lives, to one extreme or another, it surprises me that it is not an issue which romance authors are prepared to tackle. [...] I’m talking about a story which focuses on the sort of character who is largely ignored and immediately dismissed as dislikeable because they languish on the sofa and require smelling salts. Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out why they are way they are? Don’t they also deserve a HEA?
I think they do.

Which is perhaps why I found Julia Quinn's To Sir Phillip, with Love very difficult to read. I'll leave you with a quote from the prologue and you can decide for yourself if you think it's an example of 'bad stuff'. The prologue gives the reader some information about Sir Phillip's dead wife Marina:
Marina had been melancholy. Marina had spent her entire life, or at least the entire life he'd known, melancholy. He couldn't remember the sound of her laughter, and in truth, he wasn't sure that he'd ever known it.
Nowadays, I'm fairly certain a character like Marina would be recognised as having clinical depression. After Marina has attempted suicide by throwing herself into the lake, Sir Philip thinks
How dare she refuse his rescue? Would she give up on life just because she was sad? Did her melancholy amount to more than their two children? In the balance of life, did a bad mood weigh more than their need for a mother? [...]

"I can't," she whispered, with what seemed like her last ounce of energy.

And as Phillip carried his burden home, all he could think was how apt those words were.

I can't.

In a way, it seemed to sum up her entire life.

The heroine of the novel is not the depressed Marina. She dies and is replaced by the cheerful, competent, intelligent, Eloise whom Sir Phillip finds very attractive and who knows how to manage his rebellious children perfectly.

The illustration is of a ditch water filter, from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Constrained Writing

I'm very pleased to be able to announce that An Goris has co-written the following article, which has recently been published in Poetics Today: International Journal for Theory and Analysis of Literature and Communication:

Dirk de Geest and An Goris. "Constrained Writing, Creative Writing: The Case of Handbooks for Writing Romances." Poetics Today 31.1 (2010): 81-106.

As the journal's subtitle states, this is a journal with a strong focus on literary theory. de Geest and Goris's essay deals with theory concerning "constrained writing": "constrained writing designates a form of literary production in which the writer submits his or her text to specific formal (and to a lesser extent also thematic) constraints" (82). Wikipedia provides some examples:
* Lipogram: a letter (commonly e or o) is outlawed.
* Bilingual homophonous poetry (where the poem makes sense in two different languages at the same time, thus constituting two simultaneous homophonous poems)
* Limitations in punctuation (such as Peter Carey's book True History of the Kelly Gang, which features no commas)
In this context, de Geest and Goris's suggestion that the romance genre should be considered for inclusion in the category of "constrained writing" is a bold one, for as they acknowledge,
in the field of literary studies, the scope of the term has until now been rather limited. In fact, it is commonly (if not exclusively) used in reference to a very specific corpus of literary texts and/or a particular conception of writing literature. (82)
However, some of the theory about "constrained writing" leaves open the possibility that the corpus of "constrained writing" might be a little less constrained. Bernardo Schiavetta, for example, in an essay in which he attempts to define what constitutes "writing under constraint," has written that
Constraints in writing can be more or less restrictive, but in general one chooses to make use of them in a playful, even aesthetic spirit. Restrictions are a characteristic of all choices and all obligations: the very making of choices always signifies a restriction of possibilities, and for this reason a logical definition of constraint cannot be based on the notion of restriction. In a literary context, constraint always designates a "freely chosen constraint."
de Geest and Goris focus on handbooks for writing romances, rather than on romance novels themselves, because handbooks describe the constraints which the romance writer chooses to accept. According to de Geest and Goris, the handbooks articulate "generic norms in such a manner that they are also perceivable as useful, easy-to-observe, and creatively stimulating constraints (without, however, losing their normative force)" (88) and do this via
a number of strategies. In our corpus of handbooks, three overall trends can be distinguished [...]: (1) the continuous appeal to the aspiring author’s own experience of romance reading, (2) the conception of writing as a craft and a profession, and (3) the infrequent but strategic recourse to overtly normative language. (88-89)
Regarding the first strategy, de Geest and Goris suggest that
The most important consequence of constantly appealing to the reader’s genre knowledge is the impression of self-evidence, of a “natural” competence, as it were, which the handbook strategically expresses. This important (though unspoken) discursive strategy allows the handbooks to formulate the constraints in a seemingly “neutral” and “descriptive” manner instead of a normative language. (92)
This implies a certain similarity between the handbooks and much writing about "literary" texts since de Geest and Goris had earlier stated that
Generally speaking, literary texts are constructed (but also read and evaluated) by recourse to sets of norms that guarantee, at least to a certain extent, that the texts under consideration will be recognized, interpreted, and evaluated as genuine instances of literature. [...] The fact that most utterances about literature actually present themselves in a neutral, seemingly “descriptive” way does not alter their normative impact. (82-83, emphasis added)
de Geest and Goris do mention at least one possible difference between genre and literary fiction:
Whereas traditional constraints are mainly intended to function as creative stimuli, the constraints pertaining to popular literature always (implicitly or explicitly) operate under the understanding that publication and commercial success are (part of) their ultimate goal. (86)
but they also suggest that "Whether this economically functional legitimation is characteristic of the entire genre of handbooks for creative writing or specific to its subgenres that specialize in popular literature is an interesting question for future comparative research" (86).1

Although de Geest and Goris's focus is on handbooks, rather than on romances themselves, they do attempt to provide a very brief introduction to the genre. First they point out that despite the "culturally prevalent image of the romance genre as formulaic, repetitive, and unchanging" (86), "it is crucial that the aspirant author should understand both the genre’s specific narrative conventions and its current institutional organization; the more so because neither set of characteristics is static" (86), a point made by the handbooks, which "apparently feel the need to stress innovative elements and tendencies" (97).

The brief introduction to the genre includes a summary of the distinction between category and single title romances:
While a category romance is emphatically presented as an instance of an already-existing line—at the expense of the visibility and importance of the individual author—the single-title romance novel is presented and promoted more as the unique creative product of an individual. Single-title novels are substantially longer, have more complex plots, and very often incorporate elements from other genres in their subplots—a romance tale is often combined with a detective story or with a historical narrative, for example. While both categories and single titles use the basic narrative conventions of the romance genre, the single-title romance thus allows for considerably greater variation. (87)
While I might quibble with some of this (category romances can also include "a detective story or [...] a historical narrative"), in the context of an article about "constrained writing" the suggestion that single title romances allow for "considerably greater variation" should not be understood as a criticism of category romances. Category romances are more constrained, primarily by their shorter word lengths, but also by the constraints specific to each "line." Nora Roberts has related that
One of my writer pals once described it like this:

Writing a single title is like producing Swan Lake–the big stage, all the lights, the choreography, the cast, the costumes, the music. Category is producing Swan Lake in a phone booth. It takes a lot of skill to pull it off.

De Geest and Goris continue by stating that
While lines nearly obliterate the individual author, who becomes in effect virtually invisible and anonymous, those single titles are fundamentally different in this regard. These books are written by writers in the established sense of the notion: authors who have an oeuvre, a career, a public persona, and last but not least, their own characteristic “tone.” (87-88)
Again, it seems that one has to take into account the theoretical context in which the essay is published. In an email to me, An clarified that
The remark re "lines nearly obliterate the author" regards the system in which the novels are published - not so much how authors themselves feel or how particular readers regard authors. As a system or a concept, however, I believe lines indeed nearly obliterate the author, certainly the author in the Foucauldian sense of the word.
The article concludes by suggesting avenues for further research:
it is necessary to confront the handbooks’ discourse on romance writing with the actual romance practice. Such research will reveal to what extent the norms and constraints outlined in handbooks accord with the creative romance writing itself. (103)
it would be equally interesting to compare the tradition of handbooks for romance writing with other guidebooks for creative writing. Such a transgeneric approach would lay bare certain convergences and general assumptions about writing and the constraints involved in that practice. At the same time, this approach would reveal the substantial differences that separate various literary genres. (103)
They also suggest that the internet may affect the ways in which aspiring authors learn the norms of the genre and hone their writing skills, so "a more historical investigation is needed as well" (103) to take such changes into account.

I hope de Geest and Goris's "plea for further research into the complexity of our contemporary popular literary culture" (104) does encourage others to investigate the romance genre more closely. Certainly the emphasis on literary theory which is evident in this article is likely to be found in the papers presented at IASPR's forthcoming Second Annual International Conference on Popular Romance: Popular Romance Studies: Theory, Text and Practice.

1 Certainly some creative writing programmes acknowledge that writers of literary fiction may also "operate under the understanding that publication" is an "ultimate goal." Memorial University, for example, is currently offering a course on "Advanced Creative Writing: Fiction with Dr. Jessica Grant. This course is conducted as a seminar for students who wish to write publishable literary fiction" and at the University of East Anglia the list of Frequently Asked Questions includes the following:
Will the Creative Writing MA help me find an agent and publisher?
Our commitment is primarily to your writing, and we cannot promise outcomes in terms of publishing deals. The principal aim of the Prose Fiction MA is to help you develop a deeper understanding of the craft and context of producing literary fiction, and by the end of the course we would expect you to have become more adept and more self-aware in your own practice. We do however have excellent links with agents and publishers, many of whom visit the campus to talk to students in the Spring semester. Our annual anthology of student writing is distributed widely. David Higham Associates sponsors a generous bursary, and the Curtis Brown agency awards an annual prize to the best student. Following graduation we pair each of our students with a literary agent for a six month mentoring period, which includes feedback on writing and guidance on future directions.
  • Schiavetta, Bernardo. "Toward a General Theory of the Constraint." Electronic Book Review (2000).
  • Dirk de Geest and An Goris. "Constrained Writing, Creative Writing: The Case of Handbooks for Writing Romances." Poetics Today 31.1 (2010): 81-106.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Review: Lynn S. Neal's Romancing God

Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Excerpts are available via Google Books and the whole of the first chapter can be found here, because the University of North Carolina Press is offering it as as an excerpt. That chapter provides a brief history of the modern inspirational romance. Neal, as she reveals in her prologue, had initially intended to continue with this text-based focus: "As I first imagined it, this project would be about the novels' plots and prescriptions. I would analyze gender depictions, historical descriptions, and evangelical prescriptions. It would be a study about the novels' contents" (6). As her research proceeded, however, her attention came to focus on the readers of inspirational romances and she "spent thirteen months interviewing fifty readers and twenty authors" (7). More details about these readers can be found on page 8-10.

Neal's first chapter deals with "The History of Evangelical Romance." She places this history in the context of developments within evangelicalism, and begins by looking at the work of Grace Livingston Hill (1865-1947), who began writing in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.1 Hill, "Like other Christian authors, [...] viewed her work as an extension of her religious life" (17) and her "goals reflected common evangelical ideas about the utility of media and the arts" (18). As far as her literary influences are concerned, "Even as sentimental fiction declined in popularity in the late nineteenth century, Hill built on this foundation as she constructed her vision of the Christian romance" (20). Neal notes, however, that
in the realm of fiction, literature and religion forged an uneasy alliance. Utilitarian concerns for evangelism governed evangelical literary efforts; nevertheless, even as they experimented with fiction's redemptive possibilities, such fiction remained suspect. Unlike other types of media, novels directly juxtaposed the truth of Christianity with the falsehood of fiction. Departing from truth, unleashing the imagination, promoting idleness (and perhaps even idolatry), fiction was an unwieldy weapon at best in the war for lost souls. [...] Fears about fiction also reflected doubts about women. Their domination of novel reading raised concerns about the "nature" of woman and her ability to handle imaginative material. (19)
In addition,
After 1925, as many scholars have documented, the once prominent and respected evangelicals became the parochial and ridiculed fundamentalists. [...] Advocating "muscular Christianity" and a "Christ against culture" position, fundamentalists became increasingly suspicious of women, fiction, and the arts in general. Grace Livingston Hill, however, while remaining a committed conservative Protestant, continued to write her brand of fiction. Evangelistic goals and her call from God superseded fundamentalist fears. (22)
the 1940s, during the twilight of Hill's career, fundamentalism became increasingly divided over its rigid separatism from the wider culture [...]. A more moderate evangelical leadership, including Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Billy Graham, emerged with a vision of Christianity as "engaged orthodoxy." [...] In 1950, these new evangelicals [...] established the Christian Booksellers Association. (23)
However, "Despite evangelicalism's newfound theological and entrepreneurial commitment to the 'holistic gospel,' Hill's novels remained one of the only sources of Christian romance during this time" (24) because although it was the case that, "Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, religious books continued to meet with success, [...] during this time Catherine Marshall was one of the few to join Grace Livingston Hill in the field of evangelical romance" (24) with her novel Christy, published in 1967. Another landmark in the development of the genre was Janette Oke's "first novel, a prairie love story titled Love Comes Softly, was published by Bethany House in 1979" ( and Neal explains the reasons for its success:
Oke attributes her success to God, an important belief to understand; however, historical developments also explain why Bethany House was willing to take a chance on her prairie romance manuscript. The long history of evangelical media usage, its unprecedented achievements in the 1970s, and the rising popularity of secular romances all contributed to Oke's success. (27)
and, "Just as Kathleen Woodiwiss revolutionized the secular romance novel industry, Janette Oke transformed the landscape of Christian fiction as she inaugurated the contemporary form of evangelical romance" (29). Other Christian publishers followed Bethany House's lead.

Neal notes, however, that "Despite the popularity of evangelical romances, in many ways they remain, like Hill's earlier work, overlooked or invisible in the evangelical subculture" (33-34) and "the genre remains suspect" (35).

In Chapter 2, "The Discipline of Fun," Neal explores the ways in which, for the women she interviewed, the reading of evangelical romances "rests on a series of constantly negotiated relationships between escape and entertainment, forgetfulness and attention, faith and friendship, religion and recreation" (44). For example,"When asked why they liked evangelical romances, almost all the readers I interviewed - with astonishing continuity among them - mentioned two words: escape and entertainment" (45) but "For these women, the definition of fun [...] remained inseparable from their faith" (45). Nonetheless, "They constantly negotiated competing demands [on their time] and some spoke of 'reading guilt'" (57).

I can't help but speculate about the extent of similarities between these readers and those interviewed by Janice Radway who in June 1980 found that "our conversations about their reasons for romance reading were dominated by the words 'escape' and 'education'" (61). This dual vision of the purpose of their reading is not identical to that of Neal's interviewees, but both groups value "escape" and also justify their reading in terms of another benefit which would tend to be considered worthier. Given that Radway's research took place only a very short time after the publication of Jeanette Oke's first inspirational romance, it is perhaps not surprising that the Smithton readers seem to have read "secular" romances. I wonder, though, if some of them later switched to reading inspirational romances when these became more readily available, because
attendance at religious services was relatively high among Dot's customers. Although eight (19 percent) of the women indicated that they had not been to a service in the last two years, fifteen (36 percent) reported attendance "once a week or more," while another eight (19 percent) indicated attendance "once or a few times a month." (58)
However, since Radway didn't re-interview the women some years later, my curiosity will just have to remain unsatisfied. Another similarity is that romance reading and selection often seem to be shaped by relationships between women. The Smithton women all bought books recommended by Dot, and Neal found that"For many [inspirational romance readers], their choice [of reading material] reflects the influence of a Christian past and a Christian woman, usually a mother [...] mothers not only teach their daughters how to read as children, but guide them in what to read as teenagers" (48-49). More recently, and again turning back to "secular" romances, at the 2009 Georgette Heyer conference "many of the attendees had picked up their mother’s copies" (McCormack), including the few male attendees who also "tended to have picked up the novels from their mother’s shelves, although a couple of women indicated that it was their father’s who had inspired them with interest" (Lewis).

One type of connection between women which arises from romance reading but which is very particular to inspirational romance is the way in which, "In churches dominated by male leadership, women often claim the library. [...] the church librarians I talked with, who were all women, knew their evangelical romance patrons" (66).

Unlike Radway, Neal did interview some African American readers but she seems to have had some difficulty in locating them, perhaps because "To discover readers, I employed the snowball method, an approach in which I asked each reader interviewed to refer me to another reader whom they knew" (8). The reason the "snowball" method might have had consequences for Neal's sample is that
literary bonds remain limited by church affiliations. A few women I spoke with exchange novels long-distance, but most remain tied to their local religious communities. [...] Friendships, network analysts demonstrate, tend to be homogeneous. They flow through churches, family, and groups of people that are demographically similar. In evangelicalism, Sunday morning segregation intensifies these patterns. Few white readers of the genre connected with African American readers, or vice versa. I encountered only one instance of an interracial evangelical romance reading relationship. (68)
It was between two librarians, and the African American librarian referred Neal to an African American library patron,
But the snowball stopped there. I found Mona's Book Club, a reading group comprised of African American women from suburban Chicago, only through the help of African American author Sharon Ewell Foster. (68)
The members of the book club "had only read a few African American Christian romances, and seemed unfamiliar with its white counterparts" (71). Given that Neal also mentions this "genre's novelty" (71), another possible factor affecting Neal's ability to find African-American inspirational romance readers may be the fact that African-American inspirational romances have begun to appear on the market only relatively recently and "stories depicting women of color in realistic and relevant ways remain in short supply" (92). In 2008 Patricia Woodside wrote that when it comes to romance
there’s one flavor that’s all too often missing: African American Christian romance. In fact, there is such a dearth of these books that when one looks at bookstore or library shelves, one has to wonder such a thing even exists.

Before I get hit on the head, let me point out there are a number of successful African American (AA) authors writing and publishing Christian fiction. Victoria Christopher Murray, Jacquelin Thomas, and ReShonda Tate Billingsley are longstanding successes. Tia McCollors, Claudia Mair Burney, Marilynn Griffith, and Angela Benson are among the more recent multi-published AA Christian authors. Then brand new authors, like Sheila Lipsey, Keshia Dawn, Leslie Sherrod, and Kimberly Cash Tate are making their debuts.

However, most AA Christian fiction is more than plain, simple romance. Many are ensemble stories featuring multiple heroines, and are bigger, broader stories that are more likely categorized as women’s fiction.
Neal writes that "publishers are challenging the racial homogeneity of the genre by actively recruiting minority authors. The three African American authors I interviewed, who had never heard of 'Christian fiction,' became part of the industry this way" (54).

In Chapter 3 Neal takes a closer look at "what readers look for in an evangelical romance and the ways they assess them" (74). Not surprisingly for those of us aware of the lack of agreement among readers of other romance subgenres, Neal found that "while readers share similar expectations, their evaluations reveal a range of views on what constitutes a good read, a spiritual message, and a happy ending" (75). The readers of inspirational romances, however, apparently like to stress their differences from other romance readers:
Rather than emphasize the historic relationship between evangelicalism and romance, the women I interviewed situated their reading in opposition to the world's secular romance. In this "culture war," romance - as a concept and as a genre - represents an important battleground on which the boundaries of sexuality are fought. "The world," according to my consultants, "has totally distorted it [romance]." The us versus them, subculture versus the world attitude exhibited in this assessment reflects broader evangelical views about their relationship with the wider culture. (76)
and "Nowhere is this distortion more visible, for readers, than in the pages of secular romance novels. Naming sex as the biggest difference between the two genres, my readers indicted the secular and endorsed the evangelical" (77). Yet "While readers and authors agree on seeing portrayals of sex as the biggest difference between evangelical and secular novels, they do not always agree on how much sexuality should be present" (82). Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love is mentioned as a somewhat controversial inspirational romance which some readers found too explicit. Another area where readers agree in principle but disagree on the details is that of spiritual content: "Too much evangelicalism or not enough, as well as the amount of biblical content and its application, emerged as vital boundaries monitored by my consultants" (87). Neal also refers to a wider debate about the purpose and nature of evangelical art because "Placing my consultants' reading amidst the broader background of evangelicalism helps situate the practice" (103).

Chapter 4 examines the ways in which
The genre becomes an instrument for the performance and composition of evangelical women's everyday religious lives. In viewing the novels as a devotional tool, as well as a source of wholesome fun, they set themselves apart from their non-evangelical romance-reading counterparts, as well as from evangelical men. (106-07)
In other words, "With the pulpit and the pastorate (as well as other church leadership roles) closed to them" (108), these novels "represent a ministry by, for, and about women" (108). Rebecca Kaye Barrett, in an article about inspirational romances which is not mentioned by Neal, relates that
For the women to whom I spoke, the value of a text is not located in the text but in their own experience with the text. That is, overall, comments about the books did not focus on the book (for example, praise about diction or criticism of plot devices) but instead focused on their personal responses to the books, to, in other words, what the books did for them. Women's responses to the texts were not primarily critical reviews of texts (though most fan letters began with an enthusiastic but very general sentence or two about the novel about which they were writing), but were personal stories about how their lives changed in response to the novels.
and "Nearly all of the women to whom I spoke discussed the ways that the books provided them with spiritual encouragement" (Barrett). Neal similarly reports that these "Novels become a conduit for an experience of the divine" (109). For their part, some of the authors of these romances "invoked the language of calling and ministry as they discussed their vocational certainty" (111) and readers "believed in God's calling of authors and his use of their writing" (115).

Chapter 5 is about reader identification, particularly with the heroines of these romances: "For these women, heroines who are like them provide a sense of belonging and companionship. Fictional women validate readers' experiences and affirm that they are not alone" (134). Heroines also "demonstrate, through example and not exhortation, the solution to problems and the possibilities of faith" (137). Some readers found that as a result of their reading their "spiritual lives and marital relationships improved" (151) but there are, "at least two ways [in which] romantic fiction and evangelical faith could work at cross purposes: evangelical romance heroes competed with real-life husbands and reading the novels often took precedence over Bible reading" (149). Christian romance heroes "are confident enough in their masculinity to reveal their sensitive side and their domestic desires. [...] Heroes willingly cook, do dishes, move furniture, and even clean" (150). Given that Neal's priority is the analysis of readers, it is the readers' reactions to the Christian romance hero, rather than the heroes themselves, which are more fully described here. The details Neal does give about romance heroes, however, are complemented by Rebecca Barrett-Fox's 2007 article.

Chapter 6 takes readers' responses to Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love as a case study. In Redeeming Love Rivers
overlays the love story between Angel and Michael with a larger love story: the unconditional love of God for all people. Set in the nineteenth-century West, Rivers's novel is modeled on the biblical book of Hosea. It chronicles the loneliness and love experienced by the heroine Angel, a woman sold into prostitution as a child, and Michael Hosea, the moral man who loves her. (158)
Neal chose to focus on this particular novel because "For many of my consultants, Redeeming Love was the novel that provided the most accessible means to voice their views about the romancing God" (159), "a view of God as the great romancer, offering unconditional love" (163). Rivers
originally published the novel in 1991 with Bantam Books not as a Christian romance but as a historical romance. However, in 1997, Multnomah reissued the novel as an evangelical romance. The volume had the same title, author, and characters [...] but it was not the same book. The copyright page states that the novel "is the redeemed version of Redeeming Love [...]" (159-60)
Neal then moves on to look at the parallels that readers draw between God's love and heterosexual marriage. Interestingly, Neal notes that for one of her interviewees "So intertwined were romance and God that she later said, 'It is amazing that they can have the same love story as a worldly novel.'" (168) Neal also found that "While some novels feature contemporary settings, many of the most popular titles set their heroines in the past" (174) and
The novels depict a past where God and conservative Protestant women (and men) dominate. For my consultants, reading about evangelical heroines who influenced world history affirms their importance and God's providential control.
Consider, for example, representations of the "Old West," the backdrop of many evangelical romances. [...] Women enjoy "pioneer stories" that portray the West as a promised land. (175)
In an Epilogue, Neal looks at what readers do after the end of a romance, and she comments that "for most [...] the story is never really over. The ending of one novel means the beginning of another" (187), or the re-reading of one of their favourites. The story is also never over in another sense: their "devotion reminds readers of a love story that has no end. As a part of this tale, no matter what their failures or their flaws, women can rest assured that God's romance - his unconditional love for them - remains constant" (188).

  • Barrett, Rebecca Kaye. "Higher Love: What Women Gain from Christian Romance Novels." Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, 4 (2003). [This article is freely available online.]
  • Barrett-Fox, Rebecca. “Hope, Faith and Toughness: An Analysis of the Christian Hero.” Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Sally Goade. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 93-102.
  • Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2006.
  • Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.
  • Woodside, Patricia. "Writing the Multi-ethnic Romance Novel: African American by Patricia Woodside." Kaye Dacus's blog, 12 May 2008.
1 More than one bibliography of her novels can be found online, and many of her earlier novels are freely available online]. She is also mentioned in AAR's brief history of inspirational romance.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What's at the Core of the Genre?

A comment Dick made recently brought up the question of what's at the core of the genre. I think it it's a really important topic, so I'm giving it its own post. Dick wrote that
One of the things the HEA of the romance formula has always implied in my thinking, as evidenced by the penchant authors have for epilogues and continuing mentions of h/h's in subsequent books is that the union (marriage or whatever) of the two brings continuance far into the future through their progeny; it's almost as if the "ever after" of the HEA has to be demonstrated in order to be complete.
Dick's view, that reproduction is a central element of the genre, is shared by Stephanie Laurens, who has argued that "Romance today carries the essential message that love, marriage - and by implication children and family - are valuable and desirable goals" and she even tries to correlate birth and marriage rates with rates of romance reading:
If you want women to have children, you need to ensure they view finding love and marriage as worthy goals. The US also has a marriage rate more than 50% greater than any of those other countries.

Not one so-called expert thought of romance novels - the one thing - the one and only thing - that directly and effectively reaffirms love, marriage and family as being desirable goals. Just as we forgot about the environment, we've forgotten what Entertainment, particularly Genre Fiction, and most especially romance really is.
Dick and Laurens' view suggests to me that some romances can and do reaffirm the status quo (or perhaps a real or imagined status quo ante, given some people's distaste for contemporary sexual mores) by literally reproducing an existing social order. I'm not saying that that's exactly what Dick and Laurens were arguing, only that it makes me think it's a possible way of viewing the genre. Romance, after all, has often been criticised for being a conservative genre. When heroes (and it usually is heroes) are redeemed by heroines and settle down to become happy husbands and fathers, this can be seen as a reimposition of the values of an existing social order which were temporarily under threat from the rake/outsider's refusal or inability to conform to social norms.

Other analyses of the genre come up with rather different ideas about its core message. Pamela Regis, as I mentioned in my reply to Dick, has stated that
the romance novel itself is a subset of [...] comedy [...]. The writers of Greek New Comedy [...] established the pattern of comedy, which the romance novel would modify [...]. The context of comedy, its setting, is society. Comedy's "movement ... is usually ... from one kind of society to another" ([Frye] Anatomy 163). This, then, is the usual sequence that the reader encounters - an old society (which is often corrupt, decadent, weak, or superannuated), a hero, his intended, paternal opposition to his intended becoming his wife, a removal of that opposition, the hero's triumphal betrothal, and a wedding symbolizing a new, vital society. (28-29)
The romance genre, by giving more importance to the heroine, does change this pattern, but Regis argues that its central myth remains the same. If the central core, or myth, of the genre is about establishing a new society, then, as AgTigress argues, although
the birth and upbringing of children can be used as a very convenient shorthand symbol of the continuing and new social order that is the culmination of a happy and lasting romance/love-affair, and is thus a useful way of indicating that the romance is crowned with success
it need not be the only way in which to indicate it.

Whether romances establish a new social order, or reproduce the existing one, there will tend to be, either explicitly or implicitly, a set of values which underpin those orders. Jennifer Crusie's
feeling on this, which I have expressed loudly and often, is that the romance novel is based on the idea of an innate emotional justice in the universe, that the way the world works is that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. The mystery genre is based on the same assumption, only there it’s a moral justice, a sense of fair play in human legal interaction: because the good guys risk and struggle, the murderers get punished and good triumphs in a safe world. So in romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice, unconditional love in an emotionally safe world.
What makes the "good people" good and the "bad people" bad? In some novels it may be stated explicitly, at others there may be implicit assumptions made about a set of values which the author and the implied reader share, which will allow them to identify the "good people."1

Here's an example of the values being stated very explicitly indeed. In Mary Burchell's To Journey Together Elinor Shearn is faced with a choice between two men, Kenneth and Rudi. Rudi has come into a substantial inheritance from an unrelated elderly lady who, after a disagreement, had cut a relative, Anton, out of her will
"And left him nothing?" Elinor was a good deal shocked.
"Left him nothing," Rudi agreed.
"But - Rudi - it wasn't about anything vital, was it? I mean, if she had lived, she would probably have forgiven him and changed round again, wouldn't she? She seemed genuinely fond of him."
'Oh, yes, I expect so," Rudi agreed. "That's just the luck of the thing. Like staking on the wrong card."
"It's nothing of the sort!" Elinor sat up and spoke with energy. "I thought you - you liked Anton."
"Why, of course we do."
"Then why aren't you going to put things right?"
"In what way, Elinor?"
"By re-dividing the money, of course. [...]" (174)
Rudi then proposes marriage to Elinor, and
His attraction was indescribably strong upon her. She knew she had only to turn her head and his lips would be on hers. Already she savoured the moment with a delicious thrill of anticipation. But, even while the feel of his nearness excited and fascinated her, his words blew a strange, chill breath upon her eager enthusiasm. (176)
She then rejects his proposal:
"I just don't love you - or else I shouldn't be so regretfully aware of the weaknesses in you."
He drew away from her sharply.
"You do love me! Only you've set some sort of ridiculously idealized standard of behaviour which you think I should live up to. You mustn't expect people to be heroes, Liebling. Take them as they are and love them with their faults as well as their virtues."
"I do," Elinor said, almost gently. "But I couldn't really love and marry a man I didn't respect."
Most men would have been angry at that point, but Rudi took the implied criticism quietly.
"You don't respect me, then? Because I can keep you in reasonable comfort without working for you?"
"No." She smiled a little. "I'm not so unreasonable as that. There are certain things which test us - and our friends, Rudi - and however much we like them and excuse them and try not to judge them, we assess our friends by the way they react to those tests." [...]
"The will was explict enough," Rudi exclaimed impatiently.
She did turn her head then and look at him, but her expression did not encourage him to kiss her.
"We are not talking the same language, Rudi," she said, in that curiously gentle tone. "You have been a good and charming friend to me [...]. But I am not the wife for you, my dear, and you are not the husband for me. We think and feel too differently ever to be one. That's all there is to it." (176-77)2
I also have the impression that some romances really aren't that concerned about society at all. Instead, their focus is on that "delicious thrill of anticipation" (and the subsequent delicious enjoyment) which result from an "attraction [which] was indescribably strong." Deborah Lutz has suggested that there are actually two different kinds of romance which, although they are placed within the same genre, in fact have what we might call two different "myths":
In her study of early romance genres (from 1674 to 1740), Ros Ballaster creates two categories of use here: didactic love fiction and amatory fiction. [...] Ballaster’s category of didactic love fiction—romance that has a didactic project, is future-directed, and attempts to represent a moral way of living, a “just” kind of love (depending on what constitutes the “morals” of the particular time period in question). On the opposite extreme, the dangerous lover type falls under the rubric of amatory fiction. Amatory fiction cannot be, generally speaking, recuperated morally, nor does it play out in a socially sanctioned realm. (2)
The "moral way of living" that is central to fiction about either the establishing of a new society or reproducing an existing one, is of minor or no concern in "amatory fiction." What matters here is that the lovers feel intense passion for each other. Of course, there can be overlaps since didactic fiction can include sexual tension and, nowadays, explicitly sexual elements, but I still think one can detect a difference between didactic love fiction in which "good people are rewarded and bad people are punished" and amatory fiction, which celebrates sexual passion.

Another suggestion for what's at the core of the genre was made by Phil Mathews, in his recent paper to the PCA conference. He suggests that the genre celebrates not physical passion, but love, and he quoted
screenwriting theorist Phil Parker’s requirements for a love story in film, noting that Parker does not require an HEA. According to Parker, even a love story which ends with the characters apart is a romance, so long as as long as the transformative value of love is upheld. (Jessica)
If the "transformative value of love" is at the core of the genre, all that really matters is the change which love causes in the characters, not the precise consequences (positive or negative) which that love has for either the characters or society. Phil Parker's requirement therefore has to be combined with a requirement for an "optimistic ending" in order for a novel to meet the RWA's criteria for being a "romance".

It seems to me that all of those descriptions of what's at the core of romance have some validity. The romance genre is, after all, a very big one, which means it probably can accommodate quite a lot of differences. Looked at structurally, in terms of core elements, it can be stated that "Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending" (RWA) but if one's looking at the cores of the novels, at their underlying ideologies, perhaps one can separate them out into at least four categories:
  • Didactic love fiction which reproduces an existing society and its moral order. The transformative power of love is often shown.
  • Didactic love fiction which establishes a new society with new, or at least significantly different, moral values. Again, the transformative power of love is often shown.
  • Amatory fiction with an optimistic outcome for the lovers.
  • Fiction in which the focus is on the transformative power of love, and any changes to, or continuation of, society, or an optimistic outcome, are incidental.
Does anyone else have other ideas about what's at the core of the genre, or, perhaps, at the core of some of the novels in the genre?


1 A reader who shares an implied set of values with the author may not even notice their presence, but they can be extremely obvious to a reader who does not share them. For example, a pacifist reader may find it jarring to read about protagonists who are deemed heroic because they are willing to fight for their countries, or a socialist reader may find a billionaire tycoon's success troubling rather than merely accepting it as a marker of the hero's suitability as a mate for the heroine.

2 Elinor's reference to being "one" seems to me to recall the words of Genesis 2:24, "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh" and various other versions of this statement which exist elsewhere in the Bible, e.g. Matthew 19:3-5:
The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
Perhaps because of that, the passage reminded me of something St Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 6:14: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" This is often taken to refer to marriage. It also reminded me of an article written by Jill, of Feministe, about dating:
Even getting to the point of “this is a person worth dating in the first place” is… not easy. Any relationship requires compromise and flexibility, sure; but how and where to compromise on the feminism thing is particularly difficult because we aren’t talking about a political issue here, we’re talking about a way of seeing the world. I also watch a lot of women date men who are, to be kind, Not Great, but they want to date someone and Not Great Guy is there I guess.

The photos all came from Flickr. The first, on the stripy background, is a "Peanut Butter Bon Bon" photographed by Rox SM. The second is of "vegan chocolate with a strawberry filling" and was photographed by VeganWarrior. The third, with cherry centres, were photographed by Joana Hard. The fourth, "inside," is of a chocolate with a coconut filling and was photographed by Christaface. The photographs were made available under a variety of creative commons licenses.

Friday, April 09, 2010

PCA: Vampire Romance

One of the roundtable discussions at the PCA conference was "The Vampire in Literature, Culture, & Film: Roundtable—Blood, Sex, and Love: Exploring Vampire Romance Novels and Their Impact on the Image of the Vampire." Jessica hasn't posted about everything discussed there, but she has posted the results of some research she did into vampire romance: Michele Hauf, Marta Acosta, Margaret L. Carter, Michele Bardsley, L A Banks, Shiloh Walker and others shared their opinions about where they think this particular subgenre is going.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

PCA Romance Panel 11: Happily Ever After: Romance Conventions In and Through Film and Fiction

Jessica "was not able to attend this final romance area panel" so she does not have notes on all the papers "but Phil kindly provided me with a copy of his paper from which to derive a summary." Phil Mathews's paper asked "Is Happily Ever After a Romance Imperative?" and Jessica has put up her summary of it. I don't want to copy and paste all of Jessica's post, so in what follows I'm taking it for granted that everyone who carries on reading this has already looked at her notes on Phil's paper.

Phil asks some interesting questions about the possible consequences of knowing that a novel is going to finish with a "happily ever after" but what I found slightly curious about his paper is that although it was written by an academic from the UK, it doesn't seem to reflect the complexity of the UK situation with regards to the "romance" genre. By that, I mean that in the UK what we have is not so much "romance" as "romantic fiction" which may, or may not, include a "happily ever after" (HEA). The RNA has recently updated its website but a previous version (cached here) contained the following description of "romantic fiction":
What is romantic fiction?

Romantic fiction is the cross-genre genre. In the UK it appears under a variety of publishers’ labels including general fiction, women’s fiction, historical, romantic comedy, chick lit, sagas – even spooky – as well as romance. These are among the UK’s most commercially successful book categories.

It embraces Jilly Cooper’s 900 pages as well as the 187 of Harlequin Mills & Boon’s category romances which are published every month; multi-generational sagas and Regency romps; deeply serious meditations on life and flippant twenty–somethings’ metropolitan shenanigans.

The engine of romantic fiction is love and relationships. The bodywork is infinitely variable.

Romantic fiction’s heritage

The first modern novel in English (‘Pamela’ by Samuel Richardson, published 1740) was essentially a romance, a highly coloured tussle between love and virtue. (Both won.) First Fanny Burney, then Jane Austen honed the genre, leading their heroines through agonising mistakes to emotional understanding and a happy ending. The Brontë sisters added social isolation, madness and tragedy; Thackeray gave us the truly amoral heroine in Becky Sharpe. The modern genre was born.
Phil would "like to argue that the Romance genre is stigmatised undeservedly because of the imperative for a happy ending" but the UK's Romantic Novelists' Association was founded "in 1960 by a roll call of notables in women’s commercial fiction" because
They wanted respect for their genre. In her inaugural address, Miss Robins said that although romantic novels, according to the libraries, gave the most pleasure to the most people, the writers almost had to apologise for what they did.
And yet,
even in the sixties, not all RNA novels ended Happy Ever After. RNA Committee member Maynah Lewis ascribed this to women’s widening horizons. Winner of the Romantic Novel of the Year in 1968 and 1972, she said, “In my first novel the heroine didn’t get her man, in my second the heroine was 64 years old, my third was a romantic suspense set behind the Iron Curtain, my fourth had no wedding bells, not even in the far distance.”
So while I think Phil raises some very interesting questions about the effects of the "imperative for a happy ending" in the romance genre, I'm not sure it's necessarily that imperative which is the cause of all of the stigma (though it may well be the cause of some of it). After all, romantic fiction is, and long has been, to quote Phil, "able to embrace the love plot, tragic or otherwise" and yet many authors of romantic fiction still felt so stigmatised that they founded the RNA.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

PCA Romance Panel 9: So Classy!: High/Low/Middle Class/Culture

Jessica's notes for Panel 9 are now available. The papers were presented by Conseula Francis, Tamara Whyte, and Angela Toscano.

PCA Romance Panel 8: Exploring History, Genre, Media

The panelists were Maryan Wherry, Jill Astley, Toni Johnson-Woods, and Kimberley Baldus. Jessica's notes are available here.

Just so that we're absolutely clear about their status, Jessica introduces this set by stating that
Following are some of my fallible, incomplete, impressionistic notes from a Romance Area panel session at the PCA conference in St. Louis. These are notes on works in progress,and do not purport to be complete records of the papers presented. Please follow up with individual presenters for full copies of their papers or to have specific questions about their work addressed.
In the light of that disclaimer, those of you who read Jessica's notes on An Goris's paper about Nora Roberts, in Session 3, but who haven't kept up with the comments thread here at TMT, might like to know that An felt the "summary might have (understandably) lacked some of the nuance I hope I put into the paper" and she has therefore provided some "some clarification and additions."

Saturday, April 03, 2010

PCA Romance Panel 7: Romancing Vampires: Toothsome Heroes and Happy Endings

On this panel were Haley Stokes, Brent Gibson and Kat Schroeder. Jessica has "disabled comments on this post deliberately."

PCA Romance Panel 6: Romance Publishing: Canadian Romance, ePublishing, and Erotica, Oh My!

And Jessica's notes for this panel are also up. On the panel are Crystal Goldman, Jessica Taylor, and authors Amanda Berry, Jeannie Lin, and Sela Carsen.

PCA Romance Panel 5: The Safe Spaces of Romance: Smart Bitches, Dear Author and a New Romance Documentary

Jessica's put up notes for this panel now. Jane Litte refers to two blog posts. The first is this one by Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, and the second is this one, by Laura Clawson at Daily Kos. The other papers are by Pamela Regis and Laurie Kahn.

Edited to add: Jane Litte has also put up a detailed post about this panel.

Friday, April 02, 2010

PCA Romance Panel 3: Nora Roberts: Food, Community, and Voice

Jessica's notes about this session are now available. The presenters were Tessa Kostelc, Glinda Hall, and An Goris.

Jessica's notes about An's paper mention the
Connected book format –which had been new in early 1990s, shift in genre and its publication practices

Genre of romance seems at first resistant to connected series, since each novel has a definitive ending [...] Roberts’ first use of connected books format was in 1985, 4 books about MacGregor siblings for Silhouette.
In fact, Mills & Boon had already published Mary Burchell's Warrender series, which began in 1965 with A Song Begins. Connected romances can also be found in the oeuvre of Georgette Heyer who is, of course, a highly influential figure in the genre and one of whom Nora Roberts is very well aware: Roberts has written that "Georgette Heyer has given me such great pleasure over the years in my reading, and rereading, of her stories. [...] I have Georgette Heyer's books in every room of my house." (i). As mentioned at
Although Heyer didn't really write 'series', there are a few books that are linked by common characters. These are These Old Shades [1926] with Léonie and Justin parenting Dominic in Devil's Cub [1932] and Dominic and Mary are the grand-parents of Barbara in An Infamous Army [1937]. [...] In addition, the characters from Regency Buck [1935] are also featured in An Infamous Army. [...] her first novel, The Black Moth [1921] was revisited in These Old Shades. As Hodge says in the bio, "Devil Andover from The Black Moth has suffered a sea change into the wicked Duke of Avon (known as Satanas to his friends)."
An Infamous Army thus creates a cross-over between the books about two separate families.

Jessica added that "Sarah Frantz asks the first question, noting that it was in fact Sam and Alyssa, Suzanne Brockman’s characters, who first began their courtship in a book in which they don’t have their HEA." This made me think of Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire and Palliser novels. They're not strictly romances, but they do contain plenty of romance elements because Trollope apparently believed that "a novel can hardly be made interesting or successful without love" (Polhemus 383). Trollope's two series do eventually cross over, and in Phineas Finn in the Palliser series we can find Phineas beginning a romantic relationship that eventually concludes in Phineas Redux.

Can anyone else think of more examples of
  • early romance series
  • cross-overs between series
  • characters whose courtships begin in one book in a series and end in a later one?

Thursday, April 01, 2010