Sunday, July 31, 2022

A short exploration of "unconditional love"

Kharma Kelley, a romance author, has a few points to make about "unconditional romance" and I think it's a topic worth thinking about given that "unconditional romance" remains part of the RWA's extended definition of a romance novel:

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. 
A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as they want as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love
Here's what Kelley has to say:

If we're gonna talk about love in a mature and nuanced manner, let's start by realizing that "unconditional love" is a cruel and unrealistic idea that has shamed ppl into removing boundaries and standards required for a healthy relationship--platonic, familial, or romantic.

This idea of unconditional love can be toxic when it guilts ppl into staying with abusive partners, or forgiving family members who participated in abuse. It can shame parents into accepting the harmful and/or violent behavior of their children and vice versa.

Instead we need to empower everyone that it is OK for their love to have standards, boundaries and expectations. We are human and our loyalty, dedication and affections are GIFTS. We don't owe it to anyone unconditionally. That isn't fair, nor healthy.

Also, let's not conflate love with caretaking. Feeding, clothing and contributing to the survival of a person is not necessarily love. The will and desire to caretake can be deepened by love, but it isn't a requirement of caretaking.

I feel like what many of us are really asking for when we say 'unconditional love' is acceptance of who we are flaws and all. But even defining it as that is unrealistic. Some of our flaws will be unacceptable to some folks. And that's okay. Why?

Because I can choose to examine my flaw and if it's worth changing. Will I be better for it or nah? Notice how I didn't make it about them? Because it isn't. I always have the power to determine if a flaw is really a flaw to me.

I also have the power to determine if the relationship I may stand to create or strengthen is valuable enough to invest in by addressing this flaw. And for the record I define flaws as behaviorial. Behaviors can change. Identities and physical traits are NOT flaws.

When I wrote Faith, Love, Hope and Popular Romance Fiction (which can be read online or downloaded free from here) I decided to omit a discussion of "unconditional love" because I wasn't really sure to what extent all romance writers believed it was an essential part of romance or whether they'd have different understandings of what it meant. Instead, I decided to limit myself to arguing that, in romance novels, true love is depicted as both "good" and "durable." However, I do have an unpublished offcut which I saved and which shows me struggling to work out what "unconditional love" might mean in specific romance novels. I'll paste it in below.


One work of pastoral theology has stated that 

Unconditional love is the only real love. Conditional love is a counterfeit. It says in effect, "I will love you if - or I love you because." What it means is, "I will love you if you will fulfill my demands," or, "I love you because of what you mean to me or can do for me. (Hulme 92)

This particular definition of conditional and unconditional love comes from a chapter outlining “a theological approach to the parent-child relationship” (88); the heroine of Marin Thomas’s Daddy by Choice (2005) bears witness to the damage that can be done when parents fail to provide this kind of love:

Heart breaking, Josephine stared at her parents, yearning for the one thing they had withheld all her life. "Unconditional love [...] I'm not sure my parents know what unconditional love is." Josephine's voice cracked. "I believe my sister [...] chose to live her life away from the family because she realized she could never be what my parents expected her to be. [...] Until my sister's death, I hadn't known I had fallen victim to my parents' expectations. All my successes and accomplishments were to please them in the hope of earning their love. I didn't understand that no matter what I did, how successful I became, I would always fall short in their eyes." (222)

As Flynn, the hero of Dallas Schulze’s Tell Me a Story (1988), remarks, children need to be given "room to grow and you have to love them for what they are, not for what you want them to be” (465). Much later in the novel this brief definition of unconditional love is echoed when Ann realises that this is the kind of love Flynn himself requires: “unconditional love. Someone who accepted him with all his faults and all his good points. Someone who'd never compare him to another and find him wanting. Someone who'd love him just as he was” (621). In Courtni Wright's It Had to be You (1998), it is the heroine, Jenna, who is explicitly described as being a recipient of this kind of love. She initially believed that “her humble beginnings lay between” (17) her and Mike and “had decided that the chasm between them was too wide for him to cross” (36). Mike, however, persists in trying to bridge the gap and, by the end of the novel, she has “completed her crossing” (283) and knows Mike feels “unconditional love and acceptance. He did not care which side of the tracks had been her beginnings. He had never been embarrassed by her lack of knowledge about which fork or spoon to use with which food in a multicourse meal” (282).

Both Ann and Courtni’s respective recognition of the presence of unconditional love towards and from their heroes occurs as the novels draw to a conclusion; accepting that one is loved in this way can take time and moreover this type of love is certainly not always present immediately in the romantic relationships depicted in romances. Such a delay is, indeed, implied in the RWA definition of romance, in which unconditional love is said to be one of the rewards given to the protagonists after they have undergone “risk and struggle for each other”. Moreover, certain conditions may have to be met in romantic relationships in order for love to become unconditional and for each lover to be able to receive it. The heroine of Lidiya Foxglove’s The Mermaid Bride (2017), for example, recognises that “Being in love didn’t mean lying and hiding parts of yourself and trying to be someone you weren’t. We could only be in love if we accepted the truth of what we were, and how we felt about each other, and were willing to struggle through all the troubles” (Lidiya Foxglove, The Mermaid Bride, Chapter 21).


So, I think it might be useful to understand what different people mean by "unconditional love" as applied to relationships. It doesn't seem healthy to me to be in a relationship with someone who keeps making you jump through hoops to earn their approval, and where you're walking on eggshells thinking that if you do something wrong they'll no longer want to be with you but, on the other hand, it seems healthy to have standards regarding behaviour which will remain unacceptable, no matter how much you love someone or how much you've committed yourself to them.

In our chapter in The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction, Eric Selinger and I wrote that:

Research remains to be done on “unconditional love” in popular romance fiction. Does unconditionality work as a defining quality for love in purely secular romance contexts, or does it always bring with it a trace of religious reference and discourse? Has the feminist critique of unconditional love been incorporated into popular romance? If so, how is it addressed? Do romance novels ever extol the value of conditional love, which in Fromm is co-equal with unconditional love, since both are necessary elements in a “mature” version of the emotion? And although “unconditional love” is part of the RWA definition of the genre, is this a transnational ideal, or more specifically an American one? (499)

The pre-print version of that chapter's available for free to download here and it goes into a bit more depth about the religious roots of the concept of "unconditional love."

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Lots of IASPR news and new publications

In recent news:


The International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) is seeking a Secretary to join our Executive Committee. This is a volunteer position, with a two-year term. 

More details here on what's involved in being Secretary.

They're also looking for a Film and Television Editor, Journal for Popular Romance Studies. Details about that can be found here (and the deadline's 30 July).

If you're not already signed up to IASPR's quarterly newletter, I'd encourage you to do that here (where you can also see the newsletter's archive). This quarter's newsletter includes a link to PCA Romance Area 2022 Abstract Booklet which I don't think was available online during the event and an interview with the new IASPR President (congratulations Jayashree and I look forward to seeing your ideas come to fruition!)

And on to the new entries in the Romance Scholarship Database:

Ayala Rodríguez, Ida María and Iraida Thalia Almaral Cereijo (2022). "Deconstructionism of the heroine in the novel The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer." Sincronia 82:536-564.

Balteskard, Susanna (2022). Feminism in Romance: How the romance genre has(n't) changed since the 1950s. Bachelor thesis, Norwegian University of Science and Technology. [Abstract only.]

Buttrick, Nicholas Westgate, Erin C. Oishi, Shigehiro (2022). "Reading Literary Fiction Is Associated With a More Complex Worldview." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Online First. [A preprint version is available for free online - see the links in the romance scholarship database entry I've linked to]

Farooqui, Javaria (2022). "On Loving Popular Fiction in Pakistan." The Aleph Review.

Namysłowska, Karolina (2022). Romance novels in translation: Focus on defining features of selected texts translated from English into Polish. Masters thesis, Jagiellonian University. [Abstract]

Also, since I was sent a free copy of New Frontiers in Popular Romance: Essays on the Genre in the 21st Century, I've been able to update the entries in the Romance Scholarship Database about it to include quotes that give a flavour of each essay.

Sunday, July 03, 2022

A Changing Genre? New dissertations and links: readers, feminism, LGBTQIA+ , Black romance

Here are the new dissertations:

and thanks to Cruz-Bibb, I've found references to some older dissertations I hadn't come across before: 

The last two reach very different conclusions from each other about lesbian romance. Brown argues that lesbian romances differ significantly from f/m ones, whereas Secrease finds that they're really very similar. Both Brown and Secrease base their conclusions on small samples, and it could be argued that they're comparing the lesbian novels to at least some generalisations about heterosexual romances which have now been superseded (and may have even been a bit out of date by the time the dissertations were written) but it's interesting nonetheless that they disagree. I linked to the entries in the Romance Scholarship Database since I've included quotes there which are possibly not available in the excepts at ProQuest.


Another item I found in Cruz-Bibb's bibliography is:

In it Green mentions that

what I have experienced as "feminist changes" to the romance genre began appearing in the mid-1980s [...] In my experience, in all but the subgenre of historical romance, gender stereotypes were beginning to change. Male characters were no longer portrayed strictly as brooding, dark, and macho; heroines were given more independence and depth. There were also thematic changes: for example, writers were beginning to pay attention to contemporary social issues, such as single parenting, substance abuse, and child abuse. (14)

On the topic of changes which took place in the 1980s, Steve Ammidown tweets that:

Minger's novel was published in 1983. Steve's careful wording here reminds me that it's hard to keep track of "firsts" in the genre: since there are so many romances, and many of the earlier novels are somewhat difficult to access, their plots may not be known to current scholars. There has been some work done on earlier romances of course, and clearly some of them had plots we might find surprising. For example, jay Dixon's The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s, describes a romance by Elizabeth Carfrae, from 1929, in which the married heroine conceives a child with the hero, to whom she is not married and "Her husband thinks the baby is his and raises her accordingly until his death, when the hero and heroine meet up again and marry" (139). One early romance involving abortion is described by Joseph McAleer in his Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon:

In November 1939 a Mills & Boon novel, How Strong is Your Love? by Barbara Hedworth, made the Irish Government's list of prohibited books, on the grounds that it 'advocate[d] the unnatural prevention of conception', a provision of the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act. [....] Mills & Boon published this novel [...] over a year earlier, in August 1938. Splashy advertising for this title billed it as 'an absorbing romance' and 'a love story that will delight everybody'. Apparently not: [...] the heroine's father, a village doctor, is an abortionist. He decides to help Rose, unmarried but pregnant, by performing 'an illegal operation'. The abortion (never called such by name) is a success, but a blood clot kills Rose. To spare his family the shame and scandal, Dr Vickers shoots himself. (168)

I suspect that Steve was thinking more of novels in which abortion is "called such by name" and despite the censors' concerns, clearly this novel does not present abortion very favourably given that Rose dies, but it's interesting that the topic was at least present here: later on Mills & Boon's policy was to avoid the topic completely so as not to have their publications censored.

Still on the topic of changes in the genre, in a recent article, Ana Quiring argues that "a new subgenre of queer Regency-era romance" 

align[s] the lovers with the most marginalized in society. In consequence, these novels imagine queer love and sex as always political. Rather than repeating the Cinderella dream of marrying up, they invent a new one, no less fantastic: romantic love as a conduit to solidarity.

And by "new subgenre" Quiring doesn't mean that it's only just appearing in 2022: one of the romances described in the article dates from 2014.

Still on the topic of queer/LGBTQ+ romance, I'm a bit less sure about the historical perspective of a recent article in the Guardian, which refers to "the rise of LGBTQ+ romance fiction" and notes that readers of one of the works discussed "praised the novel for being refreshingly joyful and funny – including a happy ending, which is not that common for a book with an LGBTQ+ plot." Obviously, given the dissertations by Brown and Secrease mentioned above, LGBTQ+ romance (which, by definition, includes a happy ending) isn't actually something new but perhaps what's happening is that it's relatively recently broken through into the awareness of mainstream media?

Also apparently breaking through is Black romance.  Naomi Elias states that Bolu Babalola's "romance books—by design, not default—have become outliers in the publishing industry, since they center Black women as romantic leads" and the sub-heading of the article adds that Babalola's work "normalizes seeing Black women being loved loudly." Given that mainstream romance publishing has tended to publish too few Black authors, the word "outlier" seems fair enough but I think whoever wrote the sub-heading (and it may well not have been Elias) is overlooking the work of many other Black romance authors who've been publishing for decades.

Summing up and discussing some of the changes that have been happening in romance is this pair of podcasts:

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Race and the Future of the Love Story Part 1

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Race and the Future of the Love Story Part 2

Two of the contributors are:

  • Jayashree Kamble, Professor of English Literature at La Guardia Community College
  • Shana McDavis-Conway, Co-Director for the Center for Story-Based Strategy and Staff Reviewer for Smart Bitches, Trashy Book

I'll end, though, with something that's been present in the genre for a very long time: historically inaccurate clothing on covers. Bernadette Banner has redrawn some historical romance covers (and the cover of one work of historical fiction) to make the costumes more accurately reflect clothing in the periods and places in which they're set. The novels are: Kelly Bowen's Duke of My Heart; Beverly Jenkins's Something Like Love; Olivia Waite's The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics; Alyssa Cole's An Extraordinary Union; Gillian Bagwell's Venus in Winter; Gayle Callen's Love with a Scottish Outlaw.

She doesn't really explore the reasons why inaccurate outfits might be more appealing to readers, and I'm not sure how much that's been discussed by romance readers and scholars. Presumably the shirts that open in the wrong way are more appealing due to the amount of bare chest they reveal and I can see how some modern hairstyles might seem sexier than accurate ones but is some of this due to which stock art was available? I get the impression, though, that these were published by large publishing companies who commission photo shoots specially for their covers, so some of these choices don't make a lot of sense to me. Are publishers making assumptions which aren't warranted about what will appeal to readers? Or is the key thing just to give a general "historical" feel so that the reader can easily identify which romance subgenre the book's in?