Monday, September 16, 2019

Romance Research Wins Award at BGSU

From the BGSU website:
Bowling Green State University Libraries announced that Elizabeth Brownlow, a Ph.D. student in American Culture Studies, has been named as the 2019 recipient of The Roberta Gellis Memorial Paper Award. Brownlow’s paper “Distinguishing Feminist Readerships and Shaping Genre in the Online Community Romance Novels for Feminists” explores the ways in which “community members resist the image of the “typical” romance reader and the stigma attached to it by engaging with the genre through feminist critique and the sharing of personal experience to “save face” in a world that tells them one cannot be both feminist and a romance reader.” The Roberta Gellis Memorial Award honors the best graduate and undergraduate papers written using the resources of the Ray & Pat Browne Library for Popular Culture Studies and pertaining to the fields of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, or romance fiction.
Brownlow gave a paper at last year's BGSU conference on researching the romance. It was on a related topic, and here's the abstract:
How do online spaces allow feminist romance readers to define and negotiate feminism for themselves? How do these readers define which romance novels are feminist, and which are not? In this case study, I will look at the popular romance review blog, Romance Novels for Feminists (RNFF). In 2009, Jackie C. Horne, a romance novelist, former children’s book editor, and literary scholar, established RNFF to review and comment on romance novels in all subgenres. RNFF does not explicitly state criteria for book selection, only stating that it “strives to review only books that in its opinion espouse and/or encourage feminist value.” RNFF’s reviews of feminist romance novels are based on a no-grading system intended to open up conversations about feminism and fiction. The reviews on RNFF allow for dialogue amongst readers, responding to both the books themselves and to Horne’s reading of them. This paper will explore the traits that Horne homes in on for her selection of “feminist romance” criteria as well as the traits that blog responders find most important. I will focus particularly on claims of sexist and feminist contradictions in these reviews. Moments of agreement and disagreement between reviewer and responders suggest romance readers are using online spaces such as RNFF to determine what feminism means to them as well as to form and articulate opinions on what does and does not count as feminist in the genre.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Scheduling The Sheik

There was a screening of The Sheik (1921) at the University of Birmingham on Thursday and today's programme is:

Friday 13 September 2019
10-11:15 – Academic panel on The Sheik
  • Pauline Suwanban, Beastly Figures: The Sheik and Fairy Tales
  • Francesca Pierini, The Legacy of E.M. Hull’s The Sheik on the Depiction of the Italian Romantic Hero in Harlequin Short Contemporaries
  • Respondent: Amy Burge
  • Chair: Melissa Dickson
Tweet summary by Ali Williams here. To summarise the summary:

Pauline Suwanban is a PhD student at Birkbeck, doing research into orientalist romances. She argues that the hero of The Sheik takes on the 'devil husband figure' that has been popular over the years within popular romantic fiction. She draws parallels between the 'devil husband' and the 'beastly lover' or 'monster husband' character that can be thread through myths and fairytales. Examples include 'Beauty and the Beast'. There lies within the Arabian communities in the novel a 'sinister promise of sexual material pleasure, as well as financial security for women who can tolerate it'.

Francesca Pierini's research is focused on representations of Italian culture in Anglophone literature. Instead of the 'Latin lover', she recommends the term 'Mediterranean men', as she feels that it draws parallels with the way that South European and some Middle Eastern heroes are represented. There is a focus on the perceived 'traditional' nature of these heroes, and there are similar discursive patterns seen within the writing of these heroes within short contemporary romances. Pierini talks about the importance of the focus on 'darkness' in these 'Mediterranean men' that is qualifyingly 'foreign', especially in comparison to the white Anglo-Saxon male. Often these novels seem to play on an assumed upon link between the Mediterranean men and the natural world.
12:00-1.15pm – Author and editor panel on diversity in popular romance publishing
  • Featuring Ali Williams, Ria Cheyne, Eleanor Harkstead and Jeevani Charika/Rhoda Baxter
2pm-3pm – Learning and Teaching The Sheik
  • A conversation with Professor Deborah Longworth and Professor Eric Selinger
Again, a summary has been tweeted by Ali Williams. Here's small part of it:

Eric Selinger was sharing his approaches to romance. The first sets out four approaches (Historical, Philosophical, Psychological and Literary). The second tool was derived from teaching Rose Lerner's Sweet Disorder: Improving Tale; Erotic Fiction; Novel of Ideas; Novel as Aesthetic Object. Selinger translates this as
  • How does this book want me to behave?
  • What does this book tell me that I might desire?
  • What does this book want me to think about?
  • What does this book want me to appreciate about itself?
Deb Longworth commented that thinking about formalised approaches like this allows the genre of popular romance to be legitimised for students.

3:30-4:30pm – Final roundtable and discussion – where now for The Sheik

There should be a special issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies appearing soon, dedicated to The Sheik in its centenary year.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Taken Out of Context or Taking Responsibility: Rape, Abortion and the Romance Writer

The Guardian has reported quotes made at the Melbourne Writers' Festival, in a panel session about Romance as Resistance, by Melanie Milburne, who writes for Harlequin Mills & Boon:
“Women have lots of options if they fall pregnant after a one-night stand, and marrying a perfect stranger is not one of them, in my opinion,” Milburne said.

Her discomfort is part of a tension being felt in some areas of the romance community in the wake of #MeToo, and in the context of debates around consent and reproductive rights.

“It takes a village to rape a woman and romance writers are part of that village,” Milburne said.

It’s a tension inherent in a genre – filled with women many of whom consider themselves feminist – that is regularly painted as both challenging and upholding patriarchal ideas.
Naturally, this reporting raised concern in the romance community.

Secret Babies, Pregnancy and Abortion

As far as the pregnancy quote is concerned, it's probably worth noting that Milburne's latest novel, Cinderella's Scandalous Secret, involves a pregnant heroine and when the hero "learns about her pregnancy, he's intent on sweeping her away to Sicily ... and marrying her!"

Unfortunately this novel has not yet been released, so it's not possible to examine it yet to assess how Milburne tackles the heroine's decision-making process with respect to her pregnancy. However, Kat at BookThingo has pointed to editor Kate Cuthbert's address to the 2018 Romance Writers of Australia conference, in which Cuthbert praised
one of the bravest acts I’ve ever seen. Earlier this year I attended the Australian Romance Reader Awards, where Melanie Milburne was the guest speaker. At the table beforehand, she told me that she wasn’t sure how her speech would be received, that she was nervous because what she had to say was controversial. And then she got up and said that after a stellar career and nearly 80 titles to her name, not only were there some books that she wished she could go back and rewrite, but that there were some of which she was actively ashamed.
Cuthbert exhorted the gathered authors to (among other things)
Write options. Secret babies are a treasured part of our genre, but unwanted pregnancies have serious financial, emotional, and professional repercussions for women without a support system around them. Use this plot point, by all means, but be deliberate in your choices and don’t romanticise it. You don’t know who’s reading. 
This is part of the context to Milburne's comments at the Writers' Festival. Moreover, as reported in The Guardian, in May, other authors have been discussing this type of storyline and stating that in such circumstances abortion should be seriously considered as an option and sometimes one which is taken:
The unexpected pregnancy that forces a couple into a marriage of convenience – only for them to soon fall in love – is a common trope in romantic fiction. But in the days after Alabama’s state senate passed a near-total ban on abortion, writers are asking themselves why none of these heroines ever considers termination. According to the Guttmacher Institute, an organisation promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights, it’s a common experience for women in the US, with nearly one in four having had an abortion by the age of 45.

“We need to start putting abortion in our books,” the novelist Liz Lincoln tweeted on Wednesday. “As an alternative to marrying virtual strangers after a surprise pregnancy. As a part of character backstory. As a thing lots of people experience.”
Rape, MeToo, and Romance's Responsibilities

Dr Jodi McAlister, who was chair of the panel, has clarified that "Melanie was explaining that romance has occasionally been complicit in the past with some narratives which are harmful to women, & she doesn't want to perpetuate that in the future. Out of context, it sounds way more dramatic than that!"

Kate Cuthbert, who was "the curator and co-programmer of a day-long discussion on the romance genre at a major Australian literary festival this past weekend" confirmed that Milburne had been "quoted accurately"

but argued that the quotes needed to be understood in their context:
the quote that is causing the most concern came as part of an incredibly broad & wide-ranging discussion on the genre, and its place in a #metoo world. [...] First, she said it as part of a discussion on the history of romance and how romance has changed as a genre from its past iterations to present day. Second, she was speaking to her own past, her own backlist and things she would like to have done differently if she had her time over. Melanie has over 80 books to her name, so she had some perspective to this. Finally, she was speaking to her own beliefs as a writer to the responsibility of romance genre writers, in the context of her own feminism and experience.
This kind of conversation is something Cuthbert supported in her speech last year:
I keep coming back to this idea of potential and obligation. Because I think this is why romance has been so important to so many women for so long: it shows the potential within all of us, and it honours its obligations.

Now, obligations are slippery. And in a genre as big as ours, they’re hard to pin down. The romance readership contains multitudes, and it’s impossible to be everything to everyone. And, as one cogent argument goes, we’re not the only genre. Why is romance being held accountable in a way that other genres are not? Why must we answer to this ingrained malice in a way that no one else is expected to?

Because it’s obligation. If we want to call ourselves a feminist genre, if we want to hold ourselves up as an example of women being centred, of representing the female gaze, of creating women heroes who not only survive but thrive, then we have to lead. We can’t deflect and we can’t dissemble. We need to look to the future and create the books that women need to read now. We’ve been shown our potential. To rise to it is our obligation.
Edited to add responses made to this post/after it was written:

Nicola Davidson: "I've seen the context, and agree that robust discussions on consent and culture are important and worthwhile. Doesn't change my opinion that the phrase used was an extremely poor choice of words, and as a rape and sexual assault survivor, I hope to never see it again."

Beverly Jenkins: "But consent is at the center now and has been for years. We’re basically leading the charge on that. I had a heroine who had an abortion."
Tasha L. Harrison:  "I get that it was part of a larger conversation. However, this kind of language about romance from a romance author creates this mentality that romance has a greater influence on women than the constant and consistent narrative from ALL genres and ALL media pre-me too."

Bree: "I still think she said something dumb, I guess. She just didn't throw us under the bus to a reporter."

Zoe Archer: "It's an ongoing dialogue and process to which so many are contributing. The positioning of an author as the lone voice of change troubles me and doesn't negate the shock value of that last quote about villages."

Jodi McAlister: "I want to emphasise that while it wasn't the best wording ever, in context, it made much more sense. It was part of a claim that, essentially, rape culture exists, and that in the past, romance (including the works of the author in question - it was a self-interrogative claim) has sometimes upheld or played into narratives which uphold this culture. It was also an expression of desire from this author that her future works don't perpetuate narratives which are harmful to women, and we moved into a discussion of some of the radical potentials of the romance genre. Taken in isolation, the quote in question seems quite shocking, but in context, it was part of a very thoughtful and nuanced discussion of the romance genre (something which was a great privilege to be part of, given the track record of mainstream lit festivals in this regard)."

An exchange between Elizabeth Bright and Elizabeth Kingston
EB: It takes a village to rape a woman.
It takes a village to tell her she deserved it.
It takes a village to raise boys who say no means yes.
It takes a village to look the other way.
And when romance writers call a raping love interest a hero, well…we are part of that village.
I have a lot to say on the raping years of romance novels, and where we came from and where I hope we're going. I also think it takes guts to look back on your own body of work and express regrets about things you got wrong. I wasn't there. I don't know what she said, or what she meant. I'm just taking the words at face value, and I don't think the words are entirely wrong. Feel free to disagree. If someone could explain why they're mad about it, that would help because I just don't get it.

EK:  Speaking as someone who has had to say hard truths about what this genre promotes (innocently or not), I can say I think she was just careless about her word choice. She made it accusatory, and crudely so, which is wildly hurtful to many people who are already hurt.

EB: I think that’s probably true. But we’ve all had things to say about old school rom and even some very recent ones. The response from Romancelandia caught me by surprise. Her choice of words might be awful, but I’ve heard similar things from many of the people shrieking about it.

EK: I don't think I've ever heard someone oversimplify it so drastically, though. It's very different than saying "we are complicit" or "we have contributed." It's a pretty complex subject and there are pitfalls to being pithy, I guess.

EB: Absolutely. Her wording wasn’t good at all, not even for the sake of symmetry of language. I think what bothers me is that it seemed like people weren’t angry about the phrasing; they were angry at the implication that we are complicit. But maybe I misunderstood their anger, too.

EK: No, I think you're right that the anger is about that too - that's where the lack of nuance is a big problem. Women who wrote those things were often doing so in an attempt to find a way to process their own oppression and abuse, not to excuse or justify or perpetuate it. So to take that tangled and painful history and turn it into something that reads like "you're basically a rapist too" is anger-making

EB: Now that makes sense. Thanks for taking the time!

EK: Thanks for raising the question. This is just my take on it, who knows if I'm right. And fwiw, I think there's definitely an element of "don't air our dirty laundry so carelessly to outsiders" involved

Dr Sandra Schwab: I don't know about you, but I've read a large amount of category romance from the late 1990s and 2000s, and yes, from today's POV, many of these books contain massively problematic stuff. The hero blackmailing the heroine to have sex with him or to marry him was such a common motif. The hero kidnapping the heroine because of some stuff she did or did not do, whisking her away to a remote island, keeping her there against her will and threatening her a bit until she has sex with him? Yeah, that happened pretty often. Punishing kisses? Yep. The hero thinking of the heroine as a slut because she had sex with him? Yep. (Of course, he later realizes his mistake, blah, blah.) In many of these books abortion was vilified as was the morning-after pill. And a woman wanting to have a career? The horror! She must be an evil bitch. Moreover, a lot of these novels were massively homophobic: The hero's cold fiancée turns out to be a lesbian (which makes the hero blackmail the wedding planner into marrying him...); the heroine's manipulative fiancé who makes her feel all unwomanly turns out to be gay. Perhaps the language Melanie Milburne used to make her point was extreme, but she is not exactly wrong: These tropes were repeated over and over again by many authors, and readers gobbled these books up.

Kate Cuthbert: As an addendum to my earlier thread, please see below from Calla Wahlquist, the writer of the article and a romance advocate in her own right. Calla was a moderator at the event as well as an attendee.

Calla Wahlquist: Apologies - I wrote this brief and it was intended to be a brief, a quick what we learned note from a few panels. I included that quote because it snagged in my brain and because I found Melanie so impressive. I agree that context is important and will update that bit.

The Guardian article has been updated to include a note saying "This piece was updated on 13 September to contextualise a conversation about consent in the Romance as Resistance panel" . The relevant part now reads:
In earlier days of the genre, she said, consent was not always handled well because of societal restrictions on women agreeing to and enjoying pre-marital sex. That made coercion, a kind of not-quite-rape, a bodice ripper trope. Romance now is clear about consent, but there is a legacy.

“It takes a village to rape a woman and romance writers are part of that village,” Milburne said.

It’s a tension inherent in a genre – filled with women many of whom consider themselves feminist – that is regularly painted as both challenging and upholding patriarchal ideas.
For comparative purposes, the earlier version of the article can still be viewed here, via the Internet Archive.

Friday, September 06, 2019

A Quick Post about Defining Romance

This topic's cropped up again on Twitter, so I thought I'd add something:

That's an author, Vannetta Chapman, arguing that the definition of romance should not hinge on whether or not the story has a Happy Ever After or Happy For Now ending, due to a preference for Frank Norris's definition. Frank Norris was (as pointed out by Ella Drake) a racist, sexist author who died in 1902; re romance, he wrote

["Now, let us understand at once what is meant by Romance and what by Realism. Romance, I take it, is the kind of fiction that takes cognizance of variations from the type of normal life. Realism is the kind of fiction that confines itself to the type of normal life" (215).]

Norris's definition is extremely broad and may end up encompassing a huge swathe of fiction. Indeed, as Gillian Beer has noted,
One problem in discussing the romance is the need to limit the way the term is applied. All fiction has a way of looking like romance and in a sense this is just, since all fiction frees us into an imaginative world. (5)
One way to deal with this is to add more subdivisions, as Northrop Frye did. His classification system is similarly based on a work's relation to reality but with more gradations. In Anatomy of Criticism (1957) Frye divides fiction into five categories (or modes), on the basis of the nature of the protagonist (whom he refers to as "the hero"):
If superior in degree to other men and to his environment, the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvellous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established. Here we have moved from myth, properly so called, into legend, folk tale. (33)
His other categories are "myth", the "high mimetic", "low mimetic" and "ironic" modes. [I've included a link to the full description below, and I've written at length in For Love and Money about how Harlequin/Mills & Boon romance novels can fit into almost all of these categories. By the way, if you're in the US, there's an auction starting on 8 September to raise money for RAICES and the Young Center.

One of the items in the auction is a set of Kindle editions of my two books about romance: For Love and Money and Pursuing Happiness: Reading American Romance as Political Fiction.]

Frye's romance mode draws on, but expands on, what is,
In the narrow literary sense, [...] the name given to a particular genre : the narrative poems that emerge in twelfth-century France and quickly make their way around Europe [...] These popular poems were known as romances because they were written in the vernacular, or romance, languages derived from Latin [...], as opposed to Latin itself [...]. These poems are typically concerned with aristocratic characters such as kings and queens, knights and ladies, and their chivalric pursuits. They are often organized around a quest, whether for love or adventure, and involve a variety of marvellous elements. (Fuchs 4)
None of this, however, is particularly relevant when outlining what the modern romance reader expects (and demands) from a novel marketed as a "romance". And given the sheer variety of modern romance novels, and the way in which they can incorporate elements from so many other genres, I think it's unwise to insist that this modern form of romance only "takes cognizance of variations from the type of normal life".


Beer, Gillian. The Romance. London: Methuen, 1970.

Frye, Northrop. "Historical Criticism: Theory of Modes", Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. 1957. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Norris, Frank. "A Plea for Romantic Fiction", The Responsibilities of the Novelist, And Other Literary Essays. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1903. 211-220.