Wednesday, December 04, 2019

An Author Reflects: Therese Dryden's PhD thesis on writing feminist romance

In 2011 Therese Dryden (who writes for Harlequin Mills & Boon as Michelle Douglas) came to Teach Me Tonight to discuss her masters thesis in creative writing. This year she completed her PhD and it's available online.

The PhD thesis has various parts. Since this is a PhD in creative writing, the first part is a novel. This is followed by analysis, drawing on the following corpus:

Nobody’s Baby But Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (1997)
Blue Dahlia by Nora Roberts (2004)
Daisy’s Back in Town by Rachel Gibson (2004)
Shelter Mountain by Robyn Carr (2007)
Maid For Love by Marie Force (2011)
Somebody to Love by Kristan Higgins (2012)
Along Came Trouble by Ruthie Knox (2013)
Can’t Help Falling in Love by Bella Andre (2013)
A Single Kiss by Grace Burrowes (2015)
Stand By You by Sharon Sala (2015)

Some of these are discussed in more detail than others. The criteria shaping the corpus were publication within the past 20 years, the authors' US and New York Times bestseller status and the presence of a single mother heroine in the text. Dryden's analysis of the feminism in the texts focuses on single mothers and family law:
I explore the issue of female oppression and empowerment via the figure of the single mother heroine in the contemporary American romance novel. The situation of a lone woman raising a child on her own automatically brings to the fore questions surrounding gender roles, ideas of the family, and equality between the sexes. Referencing a corpus of ten contemporary romance novels, I investigate how these single-mother heroines are portrayed, and ask whether these depictions can be considered either empowering or oppressive to women. A granular analysis of the corpus revealed the ideological inconsistency of the genre. There were novels that provided a direct protest against patriarchal oppression by dramatizing the injustices a patriarchal society inflicts upon a single-mother heroine, while others subscribed fiercely to traditional gender roles and models, and in some cases there were novels that did both, highlighting the genre’s complexity. My research demonstrates that, while the romance genre is too big and unwieldy to be called either feminist or anti-feminist, it is possible for individual romance novels to incorporate a feminist ethos.
Finally, Dryden describes her own writing process and how it was changed by reflecting on this issues she'd uncovered in the previous section. She realised that in her published work she'd written "books that, politically, I do not agree with" (384). This she ascribes to the fact that
Writing a book is not a straightforward linear process. As a young writer (young in terms of how long I had been published) my focus was firmly fixed on writing novels that had an internal logic that held them together. That is, stories with strong conflicts, that were suitably romantic, and that incorporated heroines and heroes that readers could relate to and sympathise with. (384)
Bearing this in mind, she wrote her novel and then "reworked and edited The Valentine Wars in an attempt to create a complex feminist novel". Given the way romances sometimes have rather fantastic medical and legal situations (e.g. amnesia and wills that seem to be affected more by plotting requirements than realism), I was interested to see that realism did require adjustments to Dryden's plot:
I wanted to balance the fantasy elements of my novel with a realistic situation and set-up. After reviewing the legislation pertaining to family law in the state of Pennsylvania, it quickly became evident that the scenario I had created—one in which Ellen feared that her daughter’s paternal grandmother would sue and win custod—proved highly unlikely. Even though Ellen has few financial resources and Myra has the financial means to hire the most expensive lawyers money can buy, such a scenario is so improbable as to be almost laughable. (390)
The whole thesis can be downloaded here.Therese's website as Michelle Douglas, which gives details about her novels, is here.

No comments:

Post a Comment