Friday, July 29, 2011

Heyer Bio Teaser and ARPF CFP

A literary plagiarism allegation from the 1950s is set to be given its first detailed airing in a new biography of much-loved novelist Georgette Heyer.

Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller by Jennifer Kloester (Wm Heinemann, hb, £20, October) reveals the outrage felt by the queen of witty regency romances at the obvious similarities between Barbara Cartland's historical novel Knave of Hearts and her own youthful story These Old Shades (published in 1926), when they were brought to her attention in 1950. (Page)
More details here.

Association for Research in Popular Fictions

Researching Popular Fiction: Method, Practice and Resonant Themes
Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th November 2011
Liverpool John Moores University

Call for papers: We welcome papers considering popular narratives or cultural practices across any media (film, television, graphic novel, radio, print, cartoons and other narrative art, online), historical period and genre.

Topics for this conference might include, but are not limited to:

Empirical, on-line, ethnographic and observational data gathering, archives, quantitative/quantitative data analysis, genre & formula, historical reading experience, reading and storytelling, fandom and cult media, constructing and locating the audience, thematic clusters, book clubs and reading groups, retailing and publishing, transmedia narrative, online discussions and communities, interactive fictions, nineteenth-century serialisation, the bestseller, children’s fictions, online and multiplayer gaming, advertising and narrative, radio drama, the stage and performative narrative, long-format television.

Calls for specific panels will be announced via the ARPF website.

Please contact: Nickianne Moody, convenor for ARPF, Liverpool John Moores University, Dean Walters Building, St James Road,
Liverpool L1 7BR, U.K. by 1st September 2011
And there's some background information here.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Dancing with Metaphors

As Lakoff and Turner observe, all of us use metaphors, but some of us use them better than others:
great poets, as master craftsmen, use basically the same tools we use; what makes them different is their talent for using these tools, and their skill in using them, which they acquire from sustained attention, study, and practice.
Metaphor is a tool so ordinary that we use it unconsciously and automatically, with so little effort that we hardly notice it. It is omnipresent: metaphor suffuses our thoughts, no matter what we are thinking about. [...] Great poets can speak to us because they use the modes of thought we all possess. Using the capacities we all share, poets can illuminate our experience, explore the consequences of our beliefs, challenge the ways we think, and criticize our ideologies. (xi)
In romance novels metaphors often make an appearance during sex scenes. According to Laurie Gold, "What comes to mind immediately are these phrases: ‘the dance as old as time,’ ‘filling her tight sheath,’ and ‘impaling himself into her femininity.’" Here's an example of the dance metaphor from Cathy Maxwell's Because of You. As the villagers of Sproule are gathered in the village inn to celebrate Sam's wedding to Yale, upstairs she "felt his body slide into hers" (131). The couple consummate their union as
The fiddler played a sprightly jig. The sound of it seemed to come up through the walls and Yale caught himself moving to the rhythm of the music.
They were dancing, an intimate dance as old as time. He watched the changing expressions of her face, awed by her fresh, unguarded response to him. The music faded as Yale lost himself in the magic of her body. (135)
In comparison with the more aggressive, militaristic metaphors of the woman as a “sheath” for the man's weapon, or an object impaled on the hero’s mighty phallic rod, the metaphor of dance is one which suggests cooperation, the couple moving literally and metaphorically in harmony: "She set the pace now, rising eagerly to meet his thrusts" (135).

The reuse or reworking of metaphors such as that of the "dance as old as time" is not limited to the romance genre:
General conceptual metaphors are [...] not the unique creation of individual poets but are rather part of the way members of a culture have of conceptualizing their experience. Poets, as members of their cultures, naturally make use of these basic conceptual metaphors to communicate with other members, their audience. (Lakoff and Turner 9)
Jane Austen, for example,
choreographs courtship literally by employing dancing as both a metaphor and a model for marriage, as dance partners become marriage partners [...]. She employs the same terminology for dancing as for marriage: a man “offers his hand,” “engaging” the woman as his “partner” in the parlance of the period, suggesting that this mating dance may be a prelude to matrimony. (Stovel)
Indeed, taken out of context, the sentence
When those dances were over she returned to Charlotte Lucas, and was in conversation with her, when she found herself suddenly addressed by Mr. Darcy, who took her so much by surprise in his application for her hand, that, without knowing what she did, she accepted him. (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 18)
might easily be assumed to be about the acceptance of an offer of marriage, rather than about a woman agreeing to dance with a man. Austen, then, draws on her culture's way of "conceptualizing their experience" but she also makes the metaphor of dance her own. In Northanger Abbey Henry Tilney states that
I consider a country–dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not choose to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours. [...] You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with anyone else. (Northanger Abbey, Chapter 10)
Although there are times when we can "get nothing [...] serious from" (Chapter 14) Henry and it is not entirely clear how serious he is being on this occasion,
This extended simile, Johnsonian in its amplitude and in its precise use of abstract words and significant in being one of the few fully developed figures of speech in Jane Austen's works, defines a major theme of the six finished novels. (Elsbree 114)
Segal and Handler agree with Henry that there are parallels between dancing and marriage. They “interpret the etiquette of dancing as a complex metaphorical prefigurement of marriage” (323) and note that because
dance is a metaphor not simply of marriage but a metaphor for creating it, [...] married women often provide the music that allows everyone else to dance. Similarly, Anne Eliot’s sad slide into spinsterhood is signalled by the fact that her friends have come to depend on her ‘services’ as a musician for their dances; and when Captain Wentworth, newly reacquainted with her, inquires about her status as a dancing partner, he is told that 'she has quite given up dancing. She had rather play.' (326).
Later in the novel, however, after
The reconciliation of Anne and Wentworth, [...] dancing figures prominently, and here it is used as a metaphor [...]. Charles Musgrove, Anne, and Wentworth have been walking together; Charles suddenly remembers a gun he wishes to look at and begs leave of the other two (all the italics are mine):
There could not be an objection. There could be only a most proper alacrity, a most obliging compliance for public view; and smiles reined in and spirits dancing in private rapture. (Elsbree 134)
Romance novels vary greatly in their styles: some authors choose to employ metaphors sparingly and subtly while others adopt a type of writing which is quite distinctive in its use of metaphors. Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz argue that this "language of romance is more lushly symbolic and metaphorical than ordinary discourse" (22) and they acknowledge that it
is frequently denounced by critics as being overly florid. But effusive imagery has a purpose. As we have already noted, the primary task of the romance writer is to create for her readers a vision of an alternative world and to give mythical dimension to its landscape and characters. Piling on the detail by means of a generous use of the romance codes is an effective way to achieve this goal. Lush use of symbols, metaphors, and allusion is emotionally powerful as well as mythologically evocative. (23-24)
Metaphors can indeed be evocative and emotionally powerful, but when they go wrong they can seem ridiculous.

I recently came across the following rather problematic metaphor: "when [...] she'd wafted into view his lungs had gone into cardiac arrest" (Cleary 26). I know "cardiac arrest" can also be referred to as "cardiopulmonary arrest" and the "pulmonary" bit refers to the lungs while the "cardio" part refers to the heart, but I still have some difficulty with the idea that, even metaphorically, a set of lungs could have a "cardiac arrest." Instead of conveying deep emotion, this metaphor sent me off on an anatomical tangent. Smart Bitch Sarah is "not one to shrink away from a metaphor" and earlier this year she commented on a striking assemblage of metaphor and simile:
Honey would sometimes think of Dusty, and it was like she twisted a dial and opened a steel door to a safe in her heart where she kept her grandest jewels—bittersweet memories, surrounded by a poignant moat. Some were vivid as fallen red bougainvillea petals, while others drifted by aimlessly, as vague and faded as old photographs in a dark flooded cellar.
I feel like I’m watching one of those informercials about educational programs guaranteed to improve your memory. Safe! Jewels! Poignant moat! Petals! Photographs! Flooded cellar! French drains! Homeowner’s Insurance! Flood Policy! (Wendell)
Given that metaphors when misused or overused can be distracting at best, and unintentionally hilarious at worst, it's perhaps not surprising that Leslie Wainger, in her Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies, advises authors to
Use metaphors in moderation. Incorporating a lot of metaphors in your descriptions can be tempting, because they give you a chance to be creative and stretch your skills. Do your best to resist the temptation, though. Too many metaphors - just like too many adjectives - get in the way of your real goal: involving the reader in your characters' relationship. When used sparingly, metaphors add to a description; so each time you're tempted to add one, make sure that it contributes to the overall impact of your story. If you're just showcasing your own skills, cut it. (143)
  • Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. The Republic of Pemberley.
  • Austen, Jane. Persuasion. The Republic of Pemberley.
  • Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. The Republic of Pemberley.
  • Barlow, Linda and Jayne Ann Krentz. "Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Codes of Romance." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 15-29.
  • Cleary, Anna. Do Not Disturb. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2011.
  • Elsbree, Langdon. “Jane Austen and the Dance of Fidelity and Complaisance.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 15.2 (1960): 113-36.
  • Gold, Laurie. “Laurie’s News & Views: Issue #62.” All About
  • Lakoff, George, and Mark Turner. More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Chicago: U of Chicago P., 1989.
  • Maxwell, Cathy. Because of You. 1999. London: HarperCollins: 2005.
  • Segal, Daniel A., and Richard Handler. “Serious Play: Creative Dance and Dramatic Sensibility in Jane Austen, Ethnographer.” Man ns 24.2. (1989): 322-39.
  • Stovel, Nora. "An Invitation to the Dance and a Proposal of Marriage: Jane Austen’s Emma and Two Film Adaptations." Persuasions 28.1 (2007).
  • Wainger, Leslie. Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2004.
  • Wendell, Sarah. "Walkin’ Dusty Roads of Metaphor." Smart Bitches Trashy Books.

The first image, created by Carlos Luque, is of "Sabrina y Hector" dancing the tango. I downloaded it from Wikimedia Commons under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. The second image is a "Drawing from Punch magazine humorously depicting couple dancing the tango." It too came from Wikimedia Commons .

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Not a Family Planning Guide; Not Art Either?

In the same week that there was extensive reporting of Susan Quilliam's condemnation of romance novels because "the values of romantic fiction – particularly at its inception – sometimes run totally counter to those which we Journal [of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care] readers espouse" (180), there was
another diagnosis, by a fellow psychologist, to the effect that fiction is actually good for you. Promoting his new book Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction on Radio 4 last week, Professor Keith Oatley, said that reading fiction assisted people's "social understanding" and helps, in the manner of a flight simulator, with the development of empathy: "The more time you spend, the better you are at understanding other people". (Bennett)
Unfortunately, I don't think Oatley's findings can be used to defend the romance genre. If anything, Oatley and Quilliam would seem to be in agreement that the romance genre has "values" and, albeit for very different reasons, this leads them to question its merit.

As Suzanne Keen has noted, "popular fiction [...] has not often been praised for the beneficial effects attributed to great literature" (ix) and Oatley's book continues in this tradition by making a distinction between popular culture fictions such as romance, and true art. Oatley mentions that
Related to the psychology of persuasion and enculturation is, of course, the psychology of advertising and propaganda. In a related way, many action stories and romances come in this category. Robin Collingwood [...] regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That's their intention. But they are not art, and they are not - in my view - the kinds of works that are likely to increase understanding of ourselves or others, at least when the formula of the genre is adhered to in the usual way.
But art - I'll offer a criterion - does not recruit people to believe or act or feel in a particular way. (174)
Firstly, I can't help but feel that this definition of art is very dependent on assumptions made about the intentions of the authors. Without asking authors what their intentions were, how can we know for sure which authors "intend[ed] to induce particular kinds of emotions" and which didn't?

Secondly, even if we accept that certain genres can, as a whole, be deemed to have set purposes, defining as "art" only works in which the author did not intend to "recruit people to believe or act or feel in a particular way" does, it seems to me, exclude large swathes of what many people would consider to be literature. Satire would presumably no longer be art. Nor would "thesis novels." Elegy and tragedy may perhaps also be excluded as they are too likely to evoke sadness and catharsis, while comedies can be deemed unartistic on the grounds that they are designed to evoke laughter.

Presumably works should also be disqualified if their authors hope they will assist in the development of readers' "social understanding" and/or capacity for empathy. Keen reports that
according to Coleridge, he and Wordsworth agreed in their collaboration on the Lyrical Ballads (1798) that the first of two cardinal principals of poetry was "the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature" (Biographia Literaria 5). Shelley concurred about the civilizing effects of reading poetry. (50)
George Eliot had a notion of character-construction as calling forth "tolerant judgment, pity, and sympathy" in her readers (Eliot to John Blackwood, 18 February 1857; Letters 2, 299). [...] Her sense of her own contribution to her readers' moral development comes through in one of her letters to Charles Bray, in which she writes that "the only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures." (Keen 53-54)
It would seem that Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and Eliot hoped to "recruit people to believe or act or feel in a particular way" and therefore, judged by Oatley's criterion, their works are presumably not "art."

Thirdly, given that some readers will always respond in ways which the author could not have anticipated, the intended purpose of a work may in any case not have much bearing on whether it increases a particular reader's understanding of themselves or others.

Fourthly, as Keen observes,
middlebrow readers tend to value novels offering opportunities for strong character identification. They report feeling both empathy with and sympathy for fictional characters. They believe that novel reading opens their minds to experiences, dilemmas, time periods, places, and situations that would otherwise be closed to them. (ix)
I rather suspect that many romance readers would concur with this description of the pleasures and benefits of reading. Janice Radway, for example, "was surprised to find that immediately after extolling their benefits as an 'escape,' nearly every reader informed me that the novels teach them about faraway places and times and instruct them in the customs of other cultures" (107) and Sarah Wendell, in her forthcoming Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels, apparently argues that they "might have more to say about love than we give them credit for." This being so, it seems possible to argue that romances, too, can "increase understanding of ourselves or others."

The photo of candy floss being consumed was taken by "One Hell Of A Loser" and was made available under a Creative Commons licence.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Romance Appearances

Yesterday (12 July) Amy Burge gave a paper at the International Medieval Congress as part of a panel about "Exploring the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages: The Reception of Medievalisms in Contemporary Pop Culture." The panel offered "three perspectives on the interpretation of the medieval world in contemporary popular culture, with a particular focus on how these pieces of popular medievalism interact with, and potentially influence, how the public understands the medieval world." Amy's paper was
'You're marrying me because of that! But that's… that's archaic… medieval…': Negotiating Female Agency of Text and Reader in the Use of the Medieval in Contemporary Sheikh Mills & Boon Romance
Amy Burge, Centre for Women's Studies, University of York
There will also be some discussions of romance at Readercon, which begins tomorrow:
Paranormal Romance and Otherness. Victoria Janssen (leader), Alaya Dawn Johnson, Toni L.P. Kelner, Kate Nepveu, JoSelle Vanderhooft. In science fiction, aliens are often used to explore aspects of otherness in our own society, such as gender and race. How are the mythical creatures of paranormal romance and urban fantasy being used to explore these same issues? What are the advantages and the pitfalls for writers?

Are We Not Men?: Human Women and Beast-Men in Paranormal Romance. Stacy Hague-Hill, Victoria Janssen (leader), K.A. Laity, Delia Sherman, Ann Tonsor Zeddies. In a 2009 blog post, Victoria Janssen wrote: "Paranormal romance almost always features the hero as a paranormal being and the heroine as an ordinary human. How does this resonate with gender relations and power relationships in our society? And is it emblematic of women seeing men as Other?" In addition, many of these stories feature women who metaphorically or literally tame men who have non-human aspects, turning them from bestial creatures driven by base urges into civilized, socially acceptable mates. We examine the social context of this narrative and its appeal to paranormal romance readers of various genders.
Another panel which caught my eye was
The Quest and the Rest. Greer Gilman, M.C.A. Hogarth, Kelly Link, Kathryn Morrow, Robert V.S. Redick, Madeleine Robins (leader). In a 1951 letter, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that Samwise and Rosie's romance, though understated, "is absolutely essential to... the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes." Works as varied as Lois Bujold's Vorkosigan series, Stephen King's Lisey's Story, and Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate novels overtly interweave speculative elements with themes such as love, marriage, parenthood, and holding down a steady job. Does the mundanity of responsible adulthood interfere with escapism, or are readers thrilled to have protagonists they can identify with? How do different authors and narratives handle the tension between the intimate and ordinary and the vast and mysterious?
It's nice to have romance be considered the mundane part of a fiction; it makes a change from accusations that the romance genre is escapist and unrealistic.

The image is a "Digitally enhanced photograph of a wall tiling at the Alhambra, in Granada" (by Dmharvey and downloaded from Wikipedia). Given the topic of Amy's paper, it didn't seem inappropriate to further distort the original a little as I resized it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


The Fourth Annual International Conference on Popular Romance Studies:
The Pleasures of Romance
York, United Kingdom
27-29 September, 2012

Pleasure is continually disappointed, reduced, deflated, in favor of strong, noble values: Truth, Death, Progress, Struggle, Joy, etc. Its victorious rival is Desire: we are always being told about Desire, never about Pleasure.
Roland Barthes

I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex.
Oscar Wilde

This conference asks one large question: What is the place of pleasure in popular romance? Popular romance—whether romance novels, romantic films, soap operas, fan fiction, advertisements, etc.—has long been both consumed and derided because of the pleasures they impart: pleasures of sentiment, pathos, comfort, arousal, satisfaction, identification. This conference will consider “pleasure” in popular romance texts and popular romance studies:

  • Pleasure and/vs. Shame
  • Sexual pleasure
  • The pleasures of consumption
  • The pleasure of scorn of romantic texts
  • Pleasures of/in romantic texts
  • Love as pleasure
  • The pleasure of the sentimental
  • The pleasure of melodrama
  • The pleasure of romance: giving and receiving
  • Love as pain/pain as love: the pleasures of BDSM
  • The pleasure of the bittersweet and tragic love stories
  • The rhetoric of pleasure
  • Representations of the body in pleasure
  • Pleasures of identification
  • Pleasure and power
  • Pleasure and relaxation (luxe, calme, et volupté)
  • The devaluation of pleasure
  • Paranormal pleasures / Pleasure and/in/of the paranormal
  • Pleasure of the consumer / Pleasure in consuming
  • The pleasure of the gaze

The conference asks the following questions:

  1. What is pleasure? To speak about pleasure is to work with a large concept and thus we must work toward defining pleasure and also how it relates specifically to popular romance. What theoretical avenues can we use to understand pleasure?
  2. How is pleasure represented in popular romance? How and why do characters experience pleasure? How is the characters’ pleasure connected with romantic love? How is the experience of pleasure in the text connected with the pleasure of consuming and/or viewing the text?
  3. What are the pleasures of the “text,” whether visual, cinematic, literary? If romance novels, romantic films, soap operas, etc., are “pleasurable,” where then does pleasure reside within the “text”? One might consider how the text itself describes the pleasure of the romantic experience and how textual characters experience pleasure in relation to romance.
  4. What are the pleasures of consuming a romantic text? How adequate are existing theoretical models, and what new research is available—from any field—that we might bring to bear on this question?
  5. How do we theorize the pleasure of viewing and being viewed? There is much to be said about scopophilia, voyeurism, exhibitionism, and hiding in popular romance, but how do we as consumers of popular romance understand and consider these experiences? What are the ethical and moral problems involved in consuming the pleasure of others through the texts of popular romance? How do we account for the differences between being seen and seeing?
  6. Who are the producers of the pleasurable romantic text? What creative industries produce romantic texts: film studios, television networks, advertising agencies, authors, publishers? How do they consider the pleasure of the consumer in their production of the text?

These are just some of the possible themes and questions that might be attended to by presenters. We welcome papers that consider popular romance in its many varied forms: the literary, the cinematic, and the visual. Additionally, papers that consider the “popular” in all time periods are especially welcome.

Please submit your proposals for individual papers, full panels, roundtables, interviews, or innovative presentations for peer-review consideration to by May 1, 2012.

Depending on funding, travel grants may be available for presenters.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Danger! Romance Novels!

Today The Telegraph is reporting that romances are
a cause of marital breakdown, adulterous affairs and unwanted pregnancies, according to a warning published by the British Medical Journal.

Far from being a slice of innocent escapism for millions of female readers, romantic novels are a danger to relationships and sexual health. That is the verdict of an article in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, which said women struggle to distinguish between romantic fiction and real life.

Susan Quilliam, a relationship psychologist and author of the article, said that a "huge number" of problems dealt with in family planning clinics have their roots in romance novels.
Unfortunately I haven't been able to get hold of a copy of Quilliam's article, " 'He seized her in his manly arms and bent his lips to hers…': The surprising impact that romantic novels have on our work," published in the Journal of Family Planning & Reproductive Health Care. There is an excerpt available here, however, and it would appear that the British Medical Journal issued a press release yesterday which contains a number of quotes from Quilliam:
"I would argue that a huge number of the issues we see in our clinics and therapy rooms are influenced by romantic fiction," she writes. "What we see ... is more likely to be influenced by Mills and Boon than by the Family Planning Association."

The genre has come a long way in terms of depicting a more realistic view of the world, says Ms Quilliam, "still a deep strand of escapism, perfectionism and idealisation runs through the genre," she writes.

"Clearly those messages run totally counter to those we try to promote," she says, referring to portrayals of non-consensual sex; female characters who are "awakened" by a man rather than being in charge of their own desires.

The genre also promotes unreal expectations, she says, with heroines always achieving a life of multiple orgasms and trouble free pregnancies.

"Above all we teach that sex may be wonderful and relationships loving, but neither are ever perfect and that idealising them is the short way to heartbreak," she writes.

"And while romance may be the wonderful foundation for a novel, it's not in itself a sufficiently strong foundation for running a lifelong relationship," she says.

And there's another more "worrying difference" between sexual health professionals and the producers of romantic fiction, says Ms Quilliam. "To be blunt, we like condoms - for protection and for contraception - and they don't."

She points to a recent survey of romantic fiction titles in which only one in 10 mentioned condom use, with most scenarios depicting the heroine typically rejecting their use on the grounds that she wanted "no barrier" between her and the hero. [...]

"I'm not arguing that all romantic fiction is misguided, wrong or evil - to do so would be to negate my teenage self as well as the many millions of readers who innocently enjoy romances," Ms Quilliam writes.

But she concludes: "Sometimes the kindest and wisest thing we can do for our clients is to encourage them to put down the books - and pick up reality."
That "recent survey of romantic fiction titles" is, I'm fairly sure, Diekman et al's article published in Psychology of Women Quarterly 24.2 (2000) so it's not really that recent. In addition, as I noted in my post about Diekman et al's research, the romances they studied date from between 1981 and 1996. As far as I can tell, Quilliam also refers to Gretchen E. Anderton's 2009 Ed.D thesis, "Excitement, adventure, indifference: Romance readers' perceptions of how romance reading impacts their sex lives." The abstract paints a rather different picture from the warnings in the Telegraph:
Most participants (85%) reported that reading romance novels has not had an impact on their feelings about their sex partners or has had a positive impact on their feelings about their sex partners. With regard to safer sex practices, participants said that romance novels present incorrect or misleading information about safer sex and that they regard them as unreliable in this area. [...]

The results of this study suggest that some women who read romance novels feel that reading romance novels is strictly a recreational activity, which has or should have no bearing on other aspects of their lives, and that other romance readers are open to potential positive effects that romance reading may have on their sex lives. This finding suggests that it might be useful in further research to focus on this second group of women. Another major finding of this study was that women who read romance novels and who are satisfied with their sexual relationships feel that there is no basis for comparison between their sex partners and the male protagonist or hero in a romance novel, or that their sex partners compare favorably to the male protagonists or heroes in romance novels. In contrast, women who read romance novels and who are not satisfied with their sexual relationships feel that their sex partners compare unfavorably to the male protagonists or heroes in romance novels.
I'd conclude that on the basis of the existing evidence

(a) we can't assume that romance novels cause dissatisfaction in relationships
(b) we shouldn't assume that romance readers are unaware of the differences between reality and the fantasy version of sex depicted in some romances
(c) we need more research into the psychology of fiction and
(d) it would be nice if the press didn't sensationalise the findings of any such research.

Looking on the bright side, though, comics have had to face far worse accusations than those contained in the Telegraph's article. In the 1940s
Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist working with young offenders, believed that the "gory violence and lurid sex" of comics caused the delinquency of American youth. In 1948, he delivered a talk before a convention of psychiatrists which argued that comics caused juvenile delinquency. Wertham provided appropriately horrifying examples of boys who read horror comics and turned to a life of crime [...].
Wertham's talk ignited a clamorous media chorus denouncing the degeneracy of comics and calling for their censorship. [...] Some towns even held "mass comic book burnings" [...] and in 1950, the U.S. Senate formed a special committee to investigate the link of comics with organized crime. In 1954, Wertham published his polemical and influential book, Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that Batman and Robin depicted "a dream wish of two homosexuals living together," that Wonder Woman represented a "lesbian counterpart of Batman," and that Superman planted the idea that children could fly. Wertham became a "media darling," speaking around the country and writing for popular magazines. (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 10)
My thanks to Kate Walker, whose post alerted me to the article in the Telegraph, and to The Cultural Gutter, whose post linking to “Confidential File: Horror Comic Books” reminded me of the concerns that existed at one time about comics. The warning sign came from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Escaping into Amish and Mennonite Romance

In the past we've discussed values in romance and escapism. Values are very obviously present in inspirational (religious) romances and there can be an escapist aspect to them too:
When the hustle and bustle of life in the twenty-first century starts to overwhelm them, many readers nowadays are finding escape in novels that deal with a simpler life. A life without cell phones and iPods. A community without TVs and cars. A place where gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages are still ways of life. But it’s not historical fiction they’re reading. The stories are set in the present day but focus on the Amish communities that dot states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. (Rodmell)
Amish and Mennonite romances attracted quite a lot of media and academic attention last year. There was an article about them in Bloomberg Businessweek in July 2010:
The most popular microtrends of the moment are Amish- and Mennonite-themed romances, which covered the best-seller lists last fall like a giant head scarf. What was considered a holiday season fad has persisted—and even narrowed. "I have noticed a new trend within the Mennonite genre toward Amana romances," says author Cindy Woodsmall, whose books have appeared on The New York Times' mass-market fiction best-seller list, referring to an ultraconservative strain of Amish. (Morgan)
Then in August they were the subject of an article in USA Today, in which Deirdre Donahue quoted Teach Me Tonight's Pamela Regis:
With Amish inspirationals, which are shelved under "religious fiction" in bookstores like Barnes & Noble, "readers get to peer inside the Amish community, and it is not like our own community," says McDaniel College English professor Pamela Regis, author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel. "Simplicity is a hallmark of that community, and simplicity is powerful." [...] Professor Regis points out that since the 19th century, American women have devoured sentimental novels celebrating faith and family, hearth and home. But unlike, say, Little House on the Prairie, fans don't need to time- travel to see the Amish. They only need visit tourist-friendly Lancaster, Pa., to witness the Amish in action, which adds to the genre's allure.
Analysis of this romance sub-genre also made its way into Volume 2.4 of the Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing (July 2010). The volume includes two articles on the sub-genre and a bibliography of "Mennonite and Amish Serial Fiction," which lists a variety of series, including novels which
fall within the category irreverently called “chick lit” by critics, or, in this case, “bonnet lit,” alluding to the severe head coverings worn by most of the young Mennonite and Amish heroines of these romances, which are usually set in a pastoral countryside. (Beck)
Beth Graybill writes that
Three bonnet-romance writers – Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter and Cindy Woodsmall – are New York Times best-selling authors. Other writers in this genre routinely make the best-selling lists of Christian booksellers. For example, 10 of the top 25 Christian fiction books for 2009 are Amish romances, according to, one of three major Christian book retailers.
Michelle Thurlow observes that there are older precursors of the contemporary wave of "bonnet romances," including "The Masquerading of Margaret (1908) by social progressive Cora Gottschalk Welty," "Anna Balmer Myers' Amanda (1921), Joseph Yoder's Rosanna of the Amish (1940), and 'Carolyn Keene's' Nancy Drew mystery The Witch Tree Symbol (ghostwritten by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, 1955)." Her article, however, focuses on just one recent series, by Beverly Lewis, whose books "have finally propelled the Amish novel into a genre of its own."

Issues of faith are, of course, extremely important in this sub-genre, as in all inspirational romances, so it seems important to note that Lewis's
books have been banned in some ordnungs, or church rules, in Ohio and Pennsylvania due to theological differences. Though Lewis quietly sidesteps interrogating some of the more controversial aspects of Amish culture (e.g., division of labor between men and women, prohibition of higher education), she is unabashedly evangelical in her presentation of the Gospel in her works. As the daughter of an Assemblies of God pastor and an active member of that church, Lewis allows her characters to attend Bible studies, pray charismatic prayers, and boldly claim salvation in Jesus Christ. Since Old Order Amish soteriology holds that it is prideful for the communion of earthly saints to claim salvation (as opposed to hoping to be saved), one can imagine that some of the more skeptical bishops of das alt Gebrauch (the old way) would see these novels as stalking horses for evangelism. (Thurlow)
Similarly, Graybill suggests that while "many" of the authors of "bonnet" romances "do try, in fact, to get their facts right in relation to the Amish characters they are depicting" nonetheless
all Amish romance authors write out of, and to, a particular evangelical Christian subculture. This can lead to some odd depictions of Amish faith. Amish protagonists agonize about finding God's will for their lives. In many, Jesus comes to them personally through sign or vision. [...] According to reporter Ann Rodgers, who studied Amish fiction for a 2009 story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the biggest criticism noted by her sources was that characters in these novels think and talk too much like standard evangelicals, whose understanding of God’s will tends to be individualistic rather than communal.

The poster, "Visit Pennsylvania Where pre-revolutionary costumes still survive," which depicts the head and shoulders of "a woman in eighteenth-century costume," was created by Katherine Milhous for the "Pennsylvania Art Project, WPA, [between 1936 and 1940]." I downloaded it from the WPA Posters Collection at the Library of Congress. According to the Library of Congress there are "No known restrictions on publication."