Friday, March 20, 2015

A New Subgenre?: Breast Cancer Romances

In "'Less Than Perfect': Negotiating Breast Cancer in Popular Romance Novels," Melissa Zeiger draws attention to "a huge body of romance novels whose heroines are recovering from treatment [which] began to emerge in the mid-1990s and continues into the present" (108).

I have no idea how I missed reading this at the time it came out (though it's been listed on the Romance Wiki for some time) but I'm glad I came across it in the course of my current research because it's a fascinating essay which complements other romance scholars' work on disability, race and sexuality in romance fiction.

Zeiger argues that
The emergence of this subgenre reflects a shift in what is acceptable to say about breast cancer, and the novels contribute to breast cancer’s status as something to talk about rather than hide. [...] I am interested in the way romances record a transitional moment in lifting taboos on breast cancer as a topic of discussion. During the 1980s, virtually no mention of breast cancer, let alone women of color or lesbianism, occurred inside the mainstream discourse of romance. (108)
She demonstrates that romance novels, so often scorned for their predictability and their supposed social conformity, do important cultural work in this area:
Given the futility, and worse, of so much public breast cancer discourse, it seems like a good idea to find as many supplementary sites of discourse as possible. Breast cancer romance takes a problematic genre and uses it to say some things that the culture does not always want to hear. Romance characters are allowed a leeway unknown in what critics have come to call “pink culture”; when despairing, bitter, or just angry, when wildly mourning their breasts, or when disappearing from society to nurse their wounds, they are treated with warm sympathy. This space for feeling has produced a new reading community and is at least one of the major ways that stereotypical romance has been and continues to be rewritten. Such innovations are not trivial or quietist. (109)
Among the novels mentioned are:
Kathleen Eagle’s The Last Good Man (2000), Michelle Douglas’s The Man Who Saw Her Beauty (2012), Marilyn Pappano’s The Trouble with Josh (2003), and [Donna] Alward’s How a Cowboy Stole Her Heart [2011]; the African American romances Crown and Glory (2011) by Denise Jeffries and No Regrets (2002) by Patricia Haley; and Susan Gabriel’s lesbian romance Seeking Sara Summers (2008). The ambiguous politics of these works evokes complex questions regarding the relation of breast cancer to sociocultural status, constructions of femininity, and popular literary representation. (111) 
Zeiger, Melissa F., 2013/14. 
"'Less Than Perfect': Negotiating Breast Cancer in Popular Romance Novels." Tulsa Studies In Women's Literature 32.2/33.1: 107-128. [Abstract]

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