Thursday, August 31, 2006

Clothing and Fashion in Romance

Continuing on from Eric's post about Hawaii, here's another forthcoming conference:
Fashion in Fiction
26-27 May 2007

An International Transdisciplinary Conference,
University of Technology, Sydney Australia

It was Roland Barthes who proposed that fashion was not an 'industry' but rather a set of fictions. By this Barthes did not wish to ignore the economic function of fashion, but rather underline fashion's mythic dimension, and suggest that fashion is a literature in itself. Fashion and fiction have long existed in close proximity; writers have been driven by their experience of fashion; fashion has been developed through and by literary tropes. What makes dress and fashion such a fascinating subject for writers? And how are fashion's mythologies constructed and disseminated through fictional texts?

There are more details here, and the deadline for submitting an abstract is the 15th of October 2006.

I've been thinking about fashion and clothing in romance for a while, ever since I read Janice Radway's comments on the topic, and as I won't be able to go to the conference, I thought I'd blog about the subject.

I'll start with a long quotation from Radway, who had observed
the genre’s careful attention to the style, color, and detail of women’s fashions. Extended descriptions of apparel figure repeatedly in all variations of the form, but they are especially prominent in gothics and long historicals. However, even the shorter Harlequins and Silhouettes make use of pared-down descriptions that still manage to evoke the aura of the female world. While relatively short, the following is a characteristic fashion vignette:
Outwardly, she must look much as they did. She had worn a simple white silk brocade of her own design, and with it the set of diamonds and sapphires on the silver filigree chain which she had completed recently. In her small ears were sapphire studs, and on one finger an immense sapphire ring. The white and silver set off her dark curly hair and luminous gray eyes. Leah, her abigail, had set her hair in a high pile with long curls to her neck. Some stray tendrils drifted about her ears, and she brushed them back nervously.
The clothes described in these passages almost never figure significantly in the developing action. Instead, the plot is momentarily, often awkwardly, delayed as the narrator accidentally notices seemingly superfluous details for the reader. The details, however, are not really superfluous at all. They are part of an essential shorthand that establishes that, like ordinary readers, fictional heroines are “naturally” preoccupied with fashion. Romantic authors draw unconsciously on cultural conventions and stereotypes that stipulate that women can always be characterized by their universal interest in clothes. However, at the same time that the fictional characterizations depend on these previously known codes, they also tacitly legitimate them through simple repetition, thereby justifying the readers’ own likely preoccupation with these indispensable features of the feminine universe. The final effect of endless attention to “pink-striped shirt waists”, “sandy-tweed jackets”, “long-sleeved dresses”, “emerald-green wrappers”, may be the celebration of the reader’s world of house-wifery. (Radway 1991: 193-194)

It's interesting that the romance novel from which Radway quotes is called Star Sapphire, a romance written by Rebecca Danton (published in 1979 by Fawcett Coventry). Even without having read the book, I'm certain that the sapphires the heroine is wearing in the quotation selected by Radway must have something to do with the Sapphire in the title of the book. And if the Star Sapphire is in the title, it's probably important to the plot. Furthermore, the colours blue and white together may suggest innocence (or a wish to appear innocent). In religious art, for example, the Virgin Mary's 'gown is white or pink whereas the cloak is always blue'.

It seems to me that while romances may sometimes use descriptions of clothes as a way to demonstrate the heroine's interest in fashion, it is very more often the case that her clothes are described because they give the reader information about her personality, or, as in the example given by Radway, because clothing is being used as a form of disguise.

Identity is often expressed through material possessions such as a person’s clothing and the way they adorn themselves (through hair-style, makeup and jewellery). This aspect of fashion seems to have been overlooked by Radway, who appears to take a very reductionist approach to descriptions of clothing. Her analysis implies that all heroines (and all readers) are interested in fashion, but she ignores the possibility that individual heroines (and many readers) will adapt fashions to suit their tastes, their lifestyle, their budget etc, and that the nuances and clues offered by these personal variations will be read and understood by the romance reader.

Jennifer Crusie responds to Radway, stating that ‘Women are preoccupied with details like clothing and environment because most of us are mistresses of unspoken communication. [...] In particular, the details of the way people present themselves are heavy with meaning.’ (Crusie 1997). Certainly it seems unwise to overlook the importance of clothing as a marker of social status, as an indicator of the wearer’s wealth, sexual availability, occupation etc. In the Middle Ages, for example, detailed sumptuary laws were often passed by monarchs in order to restrict certain items of clothing to members of particular classes. Then, as now, clothing was often an indicator of social status. Colour could also be used to indicate the emotional state of the wearer, as in literary depictions of clothing such as Nicolás Núñez’s late fifteenth-century continuation of Diego de San Pedro’s Cárcel de Amor (on colour symbolism in late-medieval Castilian literary texts, see Goldberg 1992). Radway’s assertion that clothes are described in romances solely, or primarily, due to women’s preoccupation with fashion seems to ignore the possibility that descriptions of clothing may be read on a variety of levels.

It's not just romance heroines who show an interest in their clothes, or whose clothes are described in detail; the hero's clothing may receive considerable attention too. In Amanda Quick's Wait Until Midnight the heroine, who is an author, observes the hero, who
was attired from head to foot in tones of deepest, darkest gray. His shirt was the singular exception. It was a pristine white. The collar was turned back in the new “gates ajar” mode that appeared to be infinitely more comfortable than the usual high-standing styles. His tie was knotted in a precise four-in-hand.
No wonder she had been having so much trouble trying to decide how to dress Edmund Drake [a character in her latest novel]. She had been attempting to put him into the sort of boldly striped pants and brightly patterned shirts that she had observed on any number of fashionable gentlemen lately. Such glaringly bright attire was entirely wrong for Edmund. He needed to project menace and an aura of resolute determination. Polka dots, stripes and plaids did not suit him at all. (Quick 2004: 11-12)
For Quick, then, clothing is not merely a covering for the body. It can be read and understood by both the onlooker and the reader of the romance. Writing as Jayne Ann Krentz, in her Sweet Fortune she gives us a hero who is extremely aware of the messages that can be sent by clothing:
Hatch was very conscious of the sober, restrained elegance of his attire. He was careful about such details as the width and color of the stripes on his ties and the roll of the collars on his custom-made shirts. He did not pay attention to these things because of any natural interest in fashion, but because he did not want to accidentally screw up on something so basic. In the business world a lot of judgments were made based on a man’s clothes.
Hatch had grown up in boots and jeans and work shirts. Even though he had been functioning successfully in the corporate environment for some time now, he still did not fully trust his own instincts when it came to appropriate dress, so he erred on the side of caution. (1999: 22)
What's explicit here is that an attention to details need not reflect any 'natural interest in fashion', as suggested by Radway, but may be due to a need to project a particular image.

As suggested by the quotation from the description of the 2007 International Transdisciplinary Conference, descriptions of fashion are most certainly not limited to the romance genre. Here, for example, is an extract from Oscar Wilde's essay 'The Truth of Masks - A Note on Illusion, in which he comments on the minute details of clothing which can make such a difference to a performance of a Shakespearian play:
the climax of The Tempest is reached when Prospero, throwing off his enchanter's robes, sends Ariel for his hat and rapier, and reveals himself as the great Italian Duke; the very Ghost in Hamlet changes his mystical apparel to produce different effects; and as for Juliet, a modern playwright would probably have laid her out in her shroud, and made the scene a scene of horror merely, but Shakespeare arrays
her in rich and gorgeous raiment, whose loveliness makes the vault 'a feasting presence full of light,' turns the tomb into a bridal chamber, and gives the cue and motive for Romeo's speech of the triumph of Beauty over Death.

Even small details of dress, such as the colour of a major-domo's stockings, the pattern on a wife's handkerchief, the sleeve of a young soldier, and a fashionable woman's bonnets, become in
Shakespeare's hands points of actual dramatic importance, and by some of them the action of the play in question is conditioned absolutely.
I'll stop now, before this post gets any longer, but I hope I've shown that descriptions of clothing may indicate much more than an interest in fashion for its own sake and, as the holding of this conference demonstrates, descriptions of clothing in fiction are not limited to the romance genre.
  • Goldberg, Harriet, 1992. ‘A Reappraisal of Colour Symbolism in the Courtly Prose Fiction of Late-Medieval Castile’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 69: 221-237.
  • Krentz, Jayne Ann, 1999. Sweet Fortune (London: William Heinemann).
  • Quick, Amanda. 2004. Wait Until Midnight (London: Piatkus Press Limited).
  • Radway, Janice A. 1991. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, With a New Introduction by the Author (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press). Original edition published in 1984.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

We interrupt this program for a special announcement...

OK, folks, it's time to get serious about this "academic study of romance fiction" business.

The deadline for submissions to the Fifth International Conference on Arts and Humanities in Honolulu, Hawai'i has just been extended to September 13, and from their website, it looks like they're open to all sorts of offers: from completed papers to abstracts, student papers, "Work-in-Progress Reports or Proposals for Future Research," and "reports on issues related to teaching."

It's a tough job, folks, but someone's got to do it. Who's ready to join me in proposing a panel or session or SOMETHING on romance fiction? Let's do something international, some sort of Aussie / American / South Asian discussion, with anyone from the UK who can rustle up the funds. Or something about new trends in the scholarship, or about the challenge of teaching this fiction, or some mixture of all of them.

I know there will be a good contingent at the Popular Culture Association convention in Boston, in April, in response to our open-to-offers call for papers, but that's April in Boston, and we're talking January in Hawai'i here. I lived in Hawai'i as a boy; then I moved to Detroit. Trust me: Hawai'i is better.

So who's in? Let me know by email, or via the listserv, or here at the blog. We're pressed for time, but we can get this, if we really want. (Oops! Wrong island, but you get the idea.)

We now return to our regular blogging schedule.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Politics in Contemporary Romances

In Teresa Southwick’s To Kiss a Sheikh the heroine is a ‘former beauty queen, the pride and joy of her hometown’ (2005: 7). At dinner with the royal family of El Zafir, the King asks her ‘do you have a political affiliation in your country?’ (2005: 33) and her response is:

“Yes, Your Majesty. I’m a Republicrat.” [...]
“Republicrat?” Fariq frowned. “I studied the politics of your country, but I have never heard of this party.”
“Neither has anyone else. It has a membership of one. Basically I take the best from the Democrats and Republicans, then vote my conscience.” (2005: 33)
Apart from the fact that this made me imagine a new species of rodent, which would take its place alongside the elephant and donkey, this scene instantly brought to mind part of the film Miss Congeniality, where the contestants in a beauty contest are being asked about the one thing that would most improve society, and all of them (except the undercover detective, played by Sandra Bullock, disguised as ‘Gracie Lou Freebush’) immediately give a pat, acceptable response:
Contestant1: I would have to say, world peace.
Contestant2: Definitely, world peace.
Contestant3: That's easy. World peace.
Contestant4: World peace.
Interviewer: What is the one most important thing our society needs?
Gracie Lou: That would be harsher punishment for parole violators, Stan.
Gracie Lou: And, world peace.
Interviewer: Thank you, Gracie Lou.
The heroine of To Kiss a Sheikh is a beauty queen, so perhaps the similarity isn’t surprising. It's not that a desire for world peace, or a choice to be a 'Republicrat', can't be a sincere and principled stand, it's just that, as presented in the context of To Kiss a Sheikh and Miss Congeniality, the way the responses is framed presents them as acceptable to all, non-controversial. But is a non-controversial, non-party-political response representative of the treatment of politics in all contemporary romances?

I have read contemporary romances, including Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation, in which some of the characters are running for office and/or are politicians, but again, the situations in the books I’ve read have been non-party-political. Here’s an example from Karen Templeton’s Swept Away:
Luralene was asking Ivy how her mayoral campaign was going [...]. She still wasn’t quite sure how she’d gotten hoodwinked into running for mayor, although she seemed to recall the Logan brothers, the youngest of whom was her son-in-law, had a lot to do with it. But when eighty-something Cy Hotchkins decided not to run for reelection – it would’ve been his sixth term, but term limits were not a big issue in a town of a thousand where most people were just happy somebody was willing to do the job – who should throw her forty-year-old pillbox into the ring but Arliss Potts, the Methodist preacher’s wife known more for her culinary eccentricities than her leadership qualities. And before Ivy knew it, her daughter Dawn, the town’s only attorney, had gotten a petition going and amassed enough signatures to get Ivy on the ballot. (2006: 21)

But just because contemporary romances avoid references to political parties doesn’t mean they don’t deal with politics. If one accepts that the personal is political, then every romance could be considered political in the sense that romances deal with the politics of gender relationships, but there are plenty of romances which touch on other political issues. Whats remained a constant in my reading experience is that the politics is not presented in a party-political way. For example, here’s a hero, who’s just taken over a business, and the heroine, the PA he inherited, discussing employment issues as they relate to employees with families:
‘After the last time, I vowed I’d never have a PA who was a mother again.’
‘Very family-minded of you,’ said Lou.
Patrick’s brows drew together at the unconcealed sarcasm in her voice. ‘I haven’t got anything against families,’ he said. ‘It’s up to individuals whether they have a family or not, but I don’t see why I should have to rearrange my life around other people’s children. [...]’
[...] ‘You’re obviously not aware of the fact that Schola Systems has always had a very good reputation for family-friendly policies,’ she admonished him. ‘I was lucky to get a job there when I had to go back to work and the children were small, and especially to have such an understanding boss. Bill Sheeran was always flexible when people needed time at home for one reason or another.
‘It won him a lot of loyalty from the staff,’ she added warningly, ‘so if you were thinking of holding parenthood against your employees, you might find yourself without any staff at all!’ (Hart 2005: 16-17)
This is a political issue. In the UK the government has introduced policies giving workers the right to ask for more flexible working-hours (though employers are not obliged to agree). The Trades Union Congress (TUC), like Lou, argues that flexibility from employers leads to a happier, more productive, more loyal workforce:
Our long hours culture creates rigidity and promotes a downward spiral of disincentives to workers. A situation where 11 million UK workers say that they want to increase or decrease their hours of work cannot be good for business. This mismatch must impact adversely on the size of the recruitment pool, labour turnover, motivation and productivity. In fact, the way to utilise the skills of a changing, more feminised workforce is through strong partnerships to develop mutually beneficial patterns of working time organisation as is common in Europe. (TUC report, 2005)

Or how about the environment? In Jayne Ann Krentz’s Sweet Fortune Jessie, the heroine, has been involved in exposing an environmental organisation, DEL, which was a cover for a fraudster who was tricking people into investing in non-existent technologies which he claimed would help to tackle climate change. Talking to her sister, Elizabeth, she comments:
“ [...] There aren’t any easy answers and there’s still so much we don’t know about ecology and the environment.”
“I can sort of see why people got excited about what Edwin Bright [the fraudster] was selling.”
“So can I,” Jessie said. “Too bad it wasn’t for real. (Krentz 1999: 268)
Climate change is, of course, both an environmental and a political issue.

Given the large number of characters in contemporary romances who have worked, or still do work, in the military and the police, romances can bring up issues such as gun control, the death penalty and foreign affairs. In Marilyn Pappano’s The Bluest Eyes in Texas, for example, the hero has fought in ‘the war in Iraq [...] where he’d spent more than a year and the Afghani mountains’ (2006: 10). As a result, ‘According to the United States Army, Logan was a hero, with commendations, medals and scars to show for it’ (2006: 120). One of the questions raised in the course of the novel, however, is whether this automatically makes him a hero in the eyes of the heroine and the reader. The heroine certainly doesn’t view him this way until close to the end of the novel, and therefore if she thinks of him as a hero it isn’t because of his military record. The villain, in fact, has also served in the army, and, very briefly, the novel raises the question of whether the army, as well as creating ‘heroes’ may also occasionally exacerbate violent tendencies:
Mac’s criminal record as a kid had been mostly petty stuff – shoplifting, vandalism, brawling. He’d never used a weapon, never done any real harm to anyone ... as far as the authorities had known. Had war taught him to enjoy killing or would he have graduated to murder regardless?
“He liked fighting,” Logan said quietly. “He was more gung ho about going to Iraq than anyone else in our company. He never seemed to feel a moment’s remorse over killing anyone. It got his adrenaline pumping, got him all psyched up.” (2006: 199)
The question is never resolved, but it is raised, as is the issue of the death penalty. The heroine muses that
She thought death was the only just punishment for what Mac had done to the Jensens ... but after he’d gone to trial. After he’d been convicted by a jury of twelve citizens. After he’d been sentenced to die. That was just. (2006: 221)
Later, however, Logan says that Mac would ‘rather die than go to prison. Being locked up in a cell the rest of his life is the worst punishment he can imagine’ (2006: 239). Clearly neither the hero nor heroine have any moral objection to the death penalty, though they may occasionally feel that there are fates worse than death for certain offenders. And perhaps it’s because I’m in the UK, but I can’t help but notice how many guns there are in many contemporary romances set in the US. In this novel, for example, the heroine notices the weapons in the trunk of the hero’s car:
Gun cases. Two obviously held pistols; the other two were for longer guns. He didn’t intend to take any chances with MacGregor. [...] But logic aside, the weapons made her uncomfortable. Sure, she carried a gun – two of them at the moment – but strictly in self-defense. [...] But going looking for someone armed to the teeth – that was more like hunting (2006: 28)
From my perspective, coming from a country with ‘some of the strictest gun legislation in the world’, both of them are ‘armed to the teeth’, and there is no way this story could have been set in the UK, because both of them would have been in breach of the law.

Contemporary romances, then, do touch on political issues, even if in a non-party political way. They may not discuss the issues in great detail, but one wouldn’t necessarily expect that in a work of fiction. And for a genre often accused of being ‘fluff’, romances can include serious reflections on some extremely important political issues. Here’s one final example. Charlie, the hero of Crusie’s Charlie All Night, and St Thomas More may not have a lot in common, but they do share an intense respect for the law:
“Listen to me,” Charlie said and the intensity in his voice stopped her in midsentence. “One of the biggest problems this country has is that people think a law is only a law if they agree with it. And if they don’t, it’s all right to kick guys like Joe [who is gay] out of the service and bomb abortion clinics because there’s a higher law at work. And that’s garbage [...] The law is the law [...] You can’t choose which part of it you like and which you’re going to ignore. It’s not a salad bar [...]. The whole thing stands, or the whole thing goes. [...]” (2005: 228)
And here is More, as portrayed in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons:
More: [...] I know what’s legal not what’s right. And I’ll stick to what’s legal.
Roper: Then you set Man’s law above God’s!
More: No far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact – I’m not God. [...]
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More (roused and excited): Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (Leaves him) This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – Man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (1968: 38-39)
  • Bolt, Robert, 1968. A Man for All Seasons: A Play of Sir Thomas More, ed. E. R. Wood (London Heinemann Educational Books).
  • Crusie, Jennifer, 2005. Charlie All Night (Richmond, Surrey: MIRA Books).
  • Hart, Jessica, 2005. Contracted, Corporate Wife (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Krentz, Jayne Ann, 1999. Sweet Fortune (London: William Heinemann).
  • Pappano, Marilyn, 2006. The Bluest Eyes in Texas (Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette Books).
  • Southwick, Teresa, 2005. To Kiss a Sheikh (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Templeton, Karen, 2006. Swept Away (Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette Books).

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sending Messages

In the comments on my post about judging each romance on its own merits we got onto the topic of whether romances can and do send messages to the readers. It would take a very long time to analyse lots of individual books, so I thought I’d take a shortcut by having a look at some of the guidelines that publishers provide for authors. Publishers are often quite explicit about what they want to see in the books. Obviously authors do have creative freedom, although they'll have more with some publishers/lines than others, so there will be variation even within a particular line. Nonetheless, if a particular novel doesn't conform to the guidelines, it's much less likely to get published in that line, so if the guidelines are insisting that authors send a particular message, it's likely that all the published works in the line will comply with the guidelines to some extent.

When I use the word 'message' I’m not talking about instances when an author becomes ‘preachy’ and drills home their point with all the subtlety of someone who’s just been given a new power-tool. Clearly Dorchester have had some bad experiences with this sort of thing appearing in their slush pile, because they say very clearly in their guidelines for submissions of time-travel romances that authors should ‘Beware of philosophizing about the meaning of time, and how the past affects the present’.

Messages can, however, be conveyed in subtle ways, and there is also a difference between sending readers messages they don’t want to hear (which, I suspect, will cause a negative reaction in the reader) and reinforcing the fantasies and aspirations that readers are already assumed to have. In the second case readers will barely notice such messages, because they’ve already internalised them. Nonetheless the messages will still be there. At the very core of the genre there’s a message: according to the RWA ‘Romance novels are based on the idea of an innate emotional justice -- the notion that good people in the world are rewarded and evil people are punished’.

So who are the ‘good people’? According to Avalon:
Every AVALON heroine should be an independent young woman with an interesting profession or career. She is equal to the stresses of today’s world and can take care of herself, yet she remains feminine and loyal to traditional values; when he comes along, the man she loves will take priority in her life, just as she will take priority in his.

AVALON heroes should be warm, likable, realistic, sympathetic, understanding men who treat the heroine as an equal, with respect for her intelligence and individuality, and with courtesy. The rude, overbearing, patronizing, egotistical, brooding, macho men and Heathcliff types are not welcome in AVALON romances; they make very poor models for husbands—and men—in today’s world.
I have to agree with Avalon that Heathcliff did not make a very good husband, but their description of what they don’t want seems to imply that they do want their heroes to be ‘models for husbands’. Notice also the reference to ‘traditional values’. While Avalon don’t specify which traditional values these are, presumably because they take it for granted that authors will be thinking of the traditional values of one particular culture, the result of specifying that all heroines must be ‘loyal’ to these values is to affirm their importance and continuing relevance to contemporary society.

In Harlequin’s Romance (Mills & Boon Tender Romance) line, the guidelines regarding the hero and heroine are as follows:
Heroine: She drives the story — the reader lives vicariously through her. [...] The reader wants to be able to identify strongly with her, to like her, to want to be her, or want to be her friend. She must be a strong, convincing woman of the 21st century.

Hero: He's always strong and charismatic, successful in his own way and aspirational — a man you'd want to be with!
  • Tower of Strength: He has a steely core, is not easily manipulated and uncompromising about the things that matter
  • Aspirational: The guy with whom women aspire to spend the rest of their lives with; definitely Mr. Right
  • Code of Honour: He has a strong sense of right and wrong, is reasonable and fair
  • Sense of Humour: He can laugh at himself and life; he's often understated and modest in manner
  • Status: Definitely successful, can be wealthy or just comfortably off; perhaps a specialist in his field
These guidelines suggest that the publishers think they know what characteristics women readers would like to have, and what sort of man ‘women aspire to spend [...] their lives with’. These books will, then, either reinforce the preferences of readers who already have such aspirations, or send a message to other readers that this is what they should aspire to. In Kimani Press’ Arabesque Romance line the authors are instructed that ‘The hero and heroine should be role models — upwardly mobile and educated individuals that our readers can admire.’ ‘Success’ as defined by both the Arabesque Romance and the Harlequin Romance lines would appear to be linked to financial affluence, and the guidelines for the Arabesque Romance line make it extremely clear that authors are supposed to send a message to readers by creating characters who will be ‘role models’.

In addition to sending messages about which sort of people the readers should aspire to resemble, (this type of person is presented as deserving of a happy ending, since romances are about ‘emotional justice’), romances may also describe the kind of relationships that readers are thought to aspire to, as in the guidelines for Mills & Boon’s Modern Xtra Sensual (formerly Harlequin Temptation) line where it’s stated that these stories present ‘the kind of relationships that women between the ages of 18 and 35 aspire to. Young characters in affluent urban settings’. The messages sent out by this line are more than a little different from those present in the Arabesque Inspirational Romance line, where ‘The hero and heroine should delay premarital sex, while secondary characters may show the negative consequences of such actions’. In the Xtra Sensual romances the hero and heroine ‘meet, flirt, share experiences, have great, passionate sex and fall in love’ and it is only some time later that they are to be depicted ‘finally making a commitment that will bind them together, forever’. Premarital sex is clearly acceptable in this particular line of romances.

The messages can extend beyond the characteristics that are deemed to be admirable and/or sexy, and the relationships to which the reader is encouraged to aspire. Some romances send messages about the ideals of a particular society, for example the guidelines for Harlequin’s American Romance line state that ‘Above all, it's important that these stories have a sense of adventure, optimism and a lively spirit — they're all the best of what it means to be American!’

It’s also important to note that what’s left out of books can also send messages. Authors may not intend to send particular messages-by-omission, and the existence of such messages cannot be deduced from reading just a few examples of the genre, but, if members of particular groups cannot find many romances which feature people like them, they may well feel there’s a message being sent to them: they are not the sort of people who are deemed worthy or likely to find a romance and happy ending of their own.

For example, there are relatively few gay and lesbian romances, romances about overweight people and romances with heroes and heroines who are middle-aged or older people. Does this mean that these people are deemed less worthy of romance, and less likely to get a happy ending of their own? I think it’s quite possible that the lack of romances about people like them might lead members of these groups to deduce that they are being sent that message. There are, of course, certain lines dedicated to romances about groups who are less likely to feature as heroes or heroines in the majority of romances. For example, African-American heroes and heroines can be found in books published by Harlequin’s Kimani Press, with books written ‘by [...] African-American authors’ and featuring African-American characters and in Avon’s African-American romances. In Genesis Press’ Indigo line the guidelines state that:
Heroine should be Afro-centric in her physical aesthetic. The presence of a non-black Hero is enough to make the book cross-cultural. No boasting, “I’m part Cherokee” or “I’m a quarter white.” Heroine must be proud and be relatable. Heroine must not have given up on black men. Do not bash black men.
That last sentence made me wonder what sort of ‘bashing’ of black men they’ve received in submissions.

Linden Bay Romance’s guidelines, in which they say they’re interested in receiving romances featuring ‘Non-traditional relationships (male/male, multiple partner, older female/younger male, etc)’, make it rather clear what they would expect to find in ‘traditional’ romances. Older couples feature in Triskelion’s After Hours line, where ‘"Sex doesn't stop at 40!" But how often does one read proclamations that ‘sex doesn’t begin at 40!’? Never - because people under 40 are generally assumed to be sexual (even if not sexually-active). It’s pretty much a given that romance heroes and heroines will be under forty, and it’s still rather unusual for them (particularly for a heroine) to be over that age.

It’s not that one never finds African-American, over-40 or gay/lesbian characters in other romances, but they either don’t, or don’t often, get to star as the hero/heroine. And I do think that regardless of whether this is done intentionally or unintentionally, that sends messages to people in these groups.

As for gender roles, here's what one poster at AAR, Lynda X, had to say:
In spite of some notable exceptions, romance basically portray the man as more knowledgeable, more sexually experienced than the woman whom he loves partly because she doesn’t have those qualities! If I were an alien from outer space and looked at romances, written and bought mostly by women, I'd assume that the basic plot elements of the boy rescuing the girl, the rake or the bad boy tamed by the good girl, and other clichés reflect more than just our society’s values. [...] I'd assume that these sexist conventions are so deeply satisfying because they reflect how we'd like the world to be. [...] I’d also assume, as an alien, that these repetitions of sexist characters and situations reflect our basic wiring, our basic gender differences.
My reading choices must be a little different from Lynda's because I've read quite a lot of romances which aren't like the ones she describes. Nonetheless, these books do exist in large numbers. Lynda concludes that there's a biological basis for gender roles: 'I think this basic plot (the bad boy redeemed by the virgin) is hard-wired into women and probably men, aided by the endless reinforcement in society, but the brain came first'. I may not agree with the conclusions that Lynda reaches about the biological basis of gender roles (gender, and the extent to which biology is responsible for differences between the sexes is still hotly contested), but what's more than clear is that she's getting messages from the romances she reads.

In conclusion, I think that romances, like other forms of literature, send messages: 'Narratives, in addition to whatever aesthetic pleasure they may give us, always interpret life; they tell us about our lives and other possible lives' (A review of Wayne C. Booth's The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction). As I think I have demonstrated by quoting from some publishers' guidelines, some messages are very intentionally included in texts. Some messages are more overt than others, and the messages in one book, or by one author or line may vary considerably from those in others. Furthermore, the reader plays a part in identifying messages, and may receive messages which the author did not intend to send. What seems clear is that the romance genre is not message-free.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Defining the Genre

Jennifer asked
will you decide on the definition of a "romance novel" proper? Will they be only the books found on the Romance section bookshelf? Can any love story make the cut? [...] How much mystery or fantasy can a novel contain before it passes from romance to something else?
I think the definition given by the Romance Writers of America (RWA), that 'Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending' is pretty much perfect as a short definition of the genre. For a definition of the structural components (e.g. 'barrier', 'moment of ritual death') of each romance, Pamela Regis' A Natural History of the Romance Novel is excellent.

One factor which complicates the definition of 'romance' is the historical usage of the term. Yesterday I went to a talk given by Eileen Ramsay, Honorary Secretary of the UK's Romantic Novelists' Association (RNA), and she said that when she thinks of the term 'romantic fiction' it brings to mind stories about knights. In an online article she's said that:
My dictionaries state that Romance is an idealized, poetic or unworldly atmospheric work of literature concerning romantic love or stirring action, medieval tales of chivalry. Romantic means concerned more with emotion than with form; characterized by or suggestive of romance.
She quoted from Robert Louis Stevenson's essay, 'A Gossip on Romance', in which he disparages stories about the 'clink of teaspoons and the accents of the curate' and instead praises romances, by which he means adventure stories.

One observation of Stevenson's which might, however, be applicable to the modern romance novel is that: 'This [...] is the triumph of romantic story-telling: when the reader consciously plays at being the hero, the scene is a good scene'. Though the novels described by Stevenson are not modern romance novels, one thing romances have in common with them is that they are books which stir the emotions and whose readers are often caught up by the story to the extent that they identify with the characters.

The modern 'romantic novel', according to Eileen Ramsay, is a novel with a love-story at its centre. She didn't at any point touch on the issue of whether the ending should be a happy or optimistic one, and this, I think, is a key difference between her tentative description (which, as far as I know, reflects the position of the RNA, though they do not have an official definition) and the RWA's official definition of what constitutes a romance novel. The RNA, as its name suggests, include writers of works which might not be strictly defined as 'romance' according to the RWA definition. The RNA is an association of 'romantic novelists', not just 'romance novelists'.

My feeling is that the RWA's definition focusses on what's at the core of romance. Of course, it's hard to define exactly when a love-story ceases to be 'central' and becomes more of a subsidiary element of the story, but I think most of us, most of the time, are able to recognise when the love-story is central and when it isn't, just as we can say which endings leave us feeling 'optimistic' and which don't. The RWA's short definition is interesting in that it doesn't actually specify the species, gender or even number of the participants in the 'love-story', and I'm glad about that, because I think it gives authors writing in this genre room to explore what is meant by a 'love-story'. They may fail to convince all readers that what they're portraying is a love-story (rather than, say, a lust-story, an orgy-story or a dull-and-comfortable-relationship-story), but they have the freedom to try. The RWA's definition is also relatively open regarding the ending of the novel, specifying only that there must be 'an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending'. Again, the authors may fail to convince readers that their ending is either emotionally satisfying or optimistic, but they're at liberty to explore the various options. In any case, readers are unlikely to agree on which endings leave them feeling 'emotionally satisfied' because, to take a couple of examples of possible elements present at the ends of romances, while some readers find babies romantic, others think them the antithesis of romance; some readers can think of nothing more satisfying than a marriage, others may feel this would restrict the characters.

I think having a definition of the genre is very useful because, as Pacatrue observed, this enables us to think about each romance on two levels:
What I have in mind is that when an author writes a romance novel, they are simultaneously creating a stand-alone work, which can be judged on its own merits, and creating the genre itself. The originality then might come not only from the nuances within the structure, but in creating the structure as well.
Although each work will stand or fail on its own merits, it will also be seen in the context of its place in the literary canon and/or within the conventions of its genre (e.g. romance, the gothic, the mystery) or the literary movement to which it belongs (e.g 'magic realism', 'the Romantics'). Readers conversant with the genre/literary movement will be able to perceive how the novel either reinforces the existing conventions, or pushes at their boundaries.

Of course, not everyone is happy with the idea of defining the genre, and it can lead to dissent and division, as was obvious in 2005 when problems arose within the RWA. As Laurie Gold asked during her discussion of the controversies related to genre definitions 'How far can you push the envelope before it tears? Do you create a larger envelope - or do you suggest that perhaps a second envelope is needed?'. What was challenging the genre definitions that year appears to have been both the erotic romance subgenre and romances featuring homosexual couples. Another issue is whether a writers' organisation should be involved in defining the genre. Personally, I don't see why the authors shouldn't create definitions of the genre - they are, after all, the ones who create the novels. But I can understand why some members might wish to avoid definition, as it can be both a distraction and a source of contention which dilutes the organisation's focus on helping to nurture writing talent. As Anne Gracie says of the Romance Writers of Australia, which is a much smaller organisation than the Romance Writers of America:
The organization is there to help people get published and to help published authors network and learn to further their career. We're not interested in splitting hairs over what romance is or isn't -- we support our members, no matter what they write or where they are in the long journey to getting published.
The UK's Romantic Novelists' Association also offers no official definition of the genre.

Romance is a genre which is often disparaged, and its readers are not infrequently mocked or belittled. For example, Zoe Williams, writing in The Guardian about Mills & Boon romances said that:
Everybody could tell you broadly what they do, but nobody ever reads them; it's not so much literature as a kind of seepage. [...] I understand the urge for a comfort read entirely, but my feeling about the Mills & Boon reader has always been that she's very, very idle. There is so little variance within the template that, really, you should be able to make stuff like this up for yourself.
Eileen Ramsay's talk was originally going to be titled 'The Genre That Dare Not Speak Its Name', though it ended up being called 'The Writing Business', and she suggested that one way to remove the stigma that's attached to romance and to romantic novels would be to drop the genre labels. Why, she asked, could her books not just be marketed as 'good books'? A librarian at the back of the room pointed out that readers would find it very hard to find the books they wanted if books weren't divided up into genres, which takes us back to some issues I raised in previous posts about reader preferences and how they select books which suit their mood. The issue of marketing was also raised by Kimber:
It seems to me that because romance novels are a commercial industry [...] one needs to take into account the commercial definition of romance [...]. Lots of books that aren't commercial romances, like "The Time Traveller's Wife," are romantic in theme. And I've read plenty of novels that are billed as general fiction, that were really straight-up romances (Ken Follett's "A Place Called Freedom" is a prime example).

So much of the analysis of romance novels seems to hinge on the social or political aspects of their marketing, audience, and low literary status, that you almost can't separate the publisher's definition from the actual definition (whatever that may be). From that point of view, it might be worth looking instead at the question, "why do some kinds of books get labeled 'romance' by publishers, and others not?"
I'm not sure there is a 'commercial definition of romance', or if there is, I've never seen it. It seems to me that publishers label books in whichever way they think will sell the most copies. Romance might be labelled 'romance', or it might be called 'chick lit' or 'women's fiction'. It could also be 'historical fiction' or 'mystery' if the book is in a particular sub-genre of romance. The process doesn't just work in one direction, though. Yes, romance may have a 'low literary status', but if it sells, then publishers are willing to put covers on works of literature which might suggest that the contents are chick lit or romance. Recent examples are the new editions of Jane Austen's works: Headline Review's May 2006 Pride and Prejudice, for example, and the same book as published by Bloomsbury, with an introduction by Meg Cabot, have covers which seem to indicate that the contents are 'romance' or 'chick lit'. I'd agree with Pamela Regis that Austen's works are romance, but that's not how they've usually been marketed or shelved, which is something that makes these new editions an interesting development.

Romance, then, as defined by Regis, may, or may not, be literature, and romantic elements are present in a very large proportion of literary works. As Eileen Ramsey demonstrated by reading excerpts from a variety of novels, including passages from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, Austen's Emma and a passage from a novel written by Sophie Weston (who writes for Mills & Boon, and, as Jenny Haddon, is the Chairman of the RNA), 'purple prose' may be found in works of literature and, conversely, there are some passages in romantic novels which are just as good as those to be found in works which would be classed as 'literature'. Ramsey concluded that each romance or romantic novel should therefore be assessed individually, not pre-judged by reference to the worst examples of the genre.

While I agree wholeheartedly that romance and romantic novels can be well-written, I wouldn't want to jettison the genre definitions in order for them to gain acceptance, and while I can understand why defining the genre may create problems for a writers' organisation, I continue to believe that basic definitions of the genre are very useful, both to readers looking for love-stories with happy endings, and to academics.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

"Freshness," Subjectivity, and What Is To Be Done

In a comment several days ago, I wrote that "A romance novel's aesthetic interest, at least to me, often lies in how wittily or inventively or simply freshly a novelist selects among and deploys the givens of the genre." Laura posed a couple if searching questions in reply:
Eric, this part of what you said's been intriguing me, because although I think I'd usually be able to detect when a romance was breaking a convention of the genre, I've always steered clear of analysing humour or satire. Humour seems so hard to pin down. Do you have any techniques which academics should bear in mind when studying this aspect of texts?

I also wonder about the 'freshness' aspect you mention, because again I think that could be subjective, and it's also quite dependent on what you (generic you) have read in the past. [...] In the past I've studied old texts, and 'freshness' wasn't something I was looking for. How you go about identifying it and demonstrating to a reader of an academic article that it's present in the text you're discussing?
These are hard topics to pursue without sounding like a US commercial for feminine hygiene products ("sometimes a novel doesn't feel so 'fresh'"), but let me see what I can do, especially since the key terms of your questions, Laura, open a whole new set of issues for us as academic readers of romance.

When I read poems, I feel confident--probably too confident--in proclaiming that this or that poem is "fresh" or "witty" (in the sense of "clever" or simply "intelligent," more than "humorous"or "satirical") in its deployment of conventions. These are subjective judgments, however objective my rhetoric may be, but I make the claims based on thirty years of reading poetry, and at least twenty, maybe twenty-five, of studying the history and criticism of the art. During those years, I have internalized a narrative about how the art of poetry has developed, at least in English; I have also seen how critics disagree with one another, so that one critic's major poet is another's minor figure, and one critic's innovation is another's period piece. I've watched literary historians recover largely-forgotten poets (Mina Loy, Edwin Rolfe), and watched critics then wrangle over their value and interest, and slowly but surely I've grown confident enough to pass judgment myself. If I'm wrong, what's the worst that can happen? Someone will disagree with me, maybe disprove me--either with evidence, if I'm making an empirical claim, or with more persuasive rhetoric, if I've made the case for some poem's value--and then the conversation will go on.

When it comes to romance, I'm at a double disadvantage. I haven't read the genre very long, and there isn't much criticism out there for me to draw on as a shortcut. When I tell the story of the genre to my students, I depend on claims I've found in the histories that I have read so far: for example, that The Sheik is a reasonably good place to start the story of modern popular romance fiction, or that The Flame and the Flower changed the shape of romance publishing and inaugurated the age of the "bodice-ripper" or "erotic historical romance." I haven't done the research to test either of these statements myself, nor am I likely to do so. There are huge gaps in my romance reading: gaps I sometimes work to fill, as when I doggedly read Sweet Savage Love this summer (not a book I'd have finished, except for its historical significance as the second of those erotic historicals); gaps I haven't started to address, and may never, as when I tack past the shoals of Nora Roberts books, unsure how to set my course and explore them.

Where does this leave me as a critic? As Laura asks, how do I go about identifying and demonstrating "freshness" to my academic readers?

My hunch is that I'll just make declarations, based on my best sense at the time--my subjective response, in Laura's terms--and make them as ardently and cleverly and confidently as I can, as if I knew exactly what I was talking about. Then I'll hold my breath and wait for someone, probably one of you reading right now, to tell me that I'm wrong--God willing, at the peer review stage rather than when the piece is already in print, but if I make a fool of myself in public, I can live with that.

We are, after all, in the lucky position of creating the field of romance criticism, folks! There's no canon to speak of, and precious little critical orthodoxy to rein us in or weigh us down. If we say that this or that novel is worth reading and teaching, we make it so, at least for a while. If we say that Lydia Joyce's Veil of Night invokes the conventions of Gothic romance and then falters, unable to sustain their haunting and mysterious tone, then so it does, by gum--and, conversely, if we say that it invokes those conventions only to shine a debunking, rationalist light on them to witty and fresh effect, entirely conscious of its every turn, then the novel does just that. We have to decide, and make the case, and see which position wins out. (For my money, by the way, Joyce's Whispers of the Night is a far better book--but what I mean by "better" in this case, I'd need to hash out at length, knowing all the while that there are no set criteria for such evaluations, but that any criteria I use might be the ones to be adopted as this field develops.)

We need so much in this field: terms of art for describing the genre (Pam Regis has given us some, but we need more); a good set of arguments over who are its major figures and which its major texts; some thoughtful, well-researched debunking of what "major" really means, anyway; essays on the pleasures of individual books; Barthesian reflections on "the pleasures of the text" in romance fiction; historicist readings of romance novels in relation to women's history and other contexts; philosophical meditations on love and desire that take works of romance fiction as their instigation, the way that Stanley Cavell's Pursuits of Happiness treats Hollywood comedies of the 1930s. And more, I'm sure!

My hunch is that we needn't worry about being "subjective." We need a lot of good, well-written, confidently subjective criticism in the field, criticism of insight and unabashed advocacy, just as we continue to need solid, "objective" research that keeps the rest of us honest. I wish I had specific "techniques" to suggest, but at the moment, I have only hunches and aspirations--and the sense that, in the words of Bram Stoker's Prof. Van Helsing, "There is work, wild work to be done!"

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Romance Clichés: Judging Each Book Individually?

In a recent post at Romancing the Blog, literary agent Kristin Nelson said that
I think writers assume that good writing is enough. Well, it’s not. You have to couple good writing with an original storyline–something that will stand out as fresh and original. A story never told in this way before (even if elements are similar to what is already out on the market). [...] Which is why I tell writers to read as much as you can of what’s already out there-because you don’t have the advantage of seeing the hundreds of partials and fulls like we do.
And in a not at all recent At The Back Fence column Laurie Gold speculated about whether 'readers tend to prefer the first book they read by a beloved author', and concluded that very often they did. But is it really fair to judge a book negatively because of what one knows about other books in the same genre? Agents and readers are, of course, not obliged to be fair: agents are looking for what they think will sell in a crowded market-place and readers are looking for a novel which will entertain them. But how about the academics? How should we approach the genre and its clichés?

There are plenty of them, including the virgin widow, the multi-orgasmic virgin and the Duke of Slut. Given that Dukes of Slut are so often paired with virgin heroines, it may well begin to look as though there's a very obvious sexual double-standard operating in the genre. There are also so many Dukes of marriageable age in romance-land's Regency London they had they actually existed they would have made Debrett's more than double in size. But does this mean that anyone attempting to analyse the genre should dismiss out of hand the more recent examples of novels containing a promiscuous aristocratic hero who finds love, sexual passion and monogamy with a virgin of impeccable birth and a feisty nature? My worry is that while analysis of a large number of romance novels, taken in bulk, by quantity, rather than quality, may be useful if one wishes to identify trends, it may mean that we miss out on a book which includes some of the clichéd plot elements, but which reinterprets them, or presents them in unique ways. Uniqueness with regards to plot, however, can be over-valued, and it's worth remembering that the romance genre is not unrelated to the fairy or folk tale, and, as

Folklorist Nils Ingwersen notes [...] in folk tales, you already know from the beginning what is going to happen; it is familiar to you [...] motifs are the building blocks of this literature.
For instance, one common pattern in folk literature has to do with the site of action. One always meets the protagonist at home, then sees him/her transferred into the unknown world; part of the final reward is always either a new home or a return to the original home. [...] A motif [...] is a plot element or object that may recur over and over in various folk tales. [...]
The standard index of motifs, produced by Stith Thompson at Indiana University, contains about 40,000 distinct motifs, carefully categorized for ease of reference: for example, Animals (B), Tabus (C), Ogres (G), Unnatural Cruelty (S), Sex (T). Thompson’s Motif-Index is a 6-volume guide to all the various motifs found in a variety of folk literatures, including myths, legends, tall tales, and other oral narratives, not just folk fairy tales.
(Professor Waller Hastings, Northern State University)

I do think it is legitimate to ask what the cumulative effect is on readers of repetitive reading of particular situations (e.g. the Duke of Slut). Does this reinforce sexual double standards in society? Do the frequent portrayals of the hero and heroine with their large brood of offspring emphasise a particular aspect of femininity, or suggest that procreation is the expected outcome of marriage? At the same time, I think that if we want to do literary analysis of individual books we have to examine each book on its own merits. Not every portrayal of a large family, for example, is an attempt to coerce the reader into giving their fertility free reign. A particular virgin widow might just have lost her husband before the marriage could be consummated. Lady Bracknell may state with great authority that 'To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness', but those of us engaged in close reading of literature may wish to look a little closer to discover how an individual author deals with the clichés and motifs. Is the author careless? Or does she bring these motifs to life, explore their possibilities and create a work which, while based on traditional elements, leads the reader to think about the issues anew?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Academics and Romance (2): What Is To Be Done?

In the words of one of my favorite romance heroes, Sam Gamgee, "Well, I'm back."

(Lucky Sam gets two romances, by my count: a tragic one with Frodo, and a comic one with Rose. But I digress.)

It's taken me a while to catch up on all of Laura's splendid blogging, and on all of your comments; in fact, I'm not sure I have it all safely in mind, so please forgive me as I offer a few prospective thoughts on the topic of academic approaches to romance. What is (still) to be done?

In last Saturday's post, Laura sorted out most academic scholarship on romance fiction into four categories: analysis of the readers; the historical / social approach; a feminist perspective; and literary criticism. I'd like to dwell on each of these in turn, and suggest some new directions each might take or projects one might undertake in each of them. (I had hoped to write a lengthy post on all four, but there's still a week before my kids go back to school, and that means there is far more pressing work--basement painting, foosball playing, lice checking, supply shopping, and so forth--at hand.)

Let's start with the most common scholarly approach: analysis of the readers.

As Laura observes, this takes both psychological and anthropological form, both of which are at work in Radway's Reading the Romance. Since Radway is neither a psychologist nor an actual anthropologist, of course, there are some limitations to her results, and my sense is that these limitations are growing more and more visible as the years go by. Take, for example, her perfectly reasonable observation that the women in her study use romance reading to carve out time and mental (and physical) space for themselves, and that the books they most enjoy involve someone spending as much time and focus and attention on the heroine as these women spend on others during the rest of their days. Radway reads this data through Nancy Chodorow's Reproduction of Mothering, which leads her to speculations like this
"the heroine's ...terror and feeling of emptiness most likely evokes for the reader distant memories of her own initial separation from her mother and her later ambivalent attempts to establish an individual identity" (138, my emphasis)
and this
"the fantasy that generates the romance originates in the oedipal desire to love and be loved by an individual of the opposite sex and in the continuing pre-oedipal wish that is part of a woman's inter-object configuration, the wish to regain the love of the mother and all that it implies--erotic pleasure, symbiotic completion, and identity confirmation" (146).
I am, I should confess, profoundly skeptical when it comes to psychoanalytic criticism in general. I find it pseudo-scientific, inclined to pretention, and generally a 50 Euro way to express a $5 thought. Does Radway have any evidence that the distress of the romance heroine awakens these distant memories? Has she said anything more substantive, in the latter passage, than "the fantasy that generates the romance originates in the desire to love and by loved by a member of the opposite sex who supplies the female reader with erotic pleasure, symbiotic completion [whatever that means], and identity confirmation"?

I would love to see academics trained in psychology--not literary critics who have read some Freudian and post-Freudian criticism, but actual psychologists, able to do empirical research--look at romance reading. Can anyone verify that reading romances boosts the reader's level of optimism, as we so often hear? If so, why? What about them does so? Is there any chemical or brain-function change related to love (release of oxytocin, for example) that seems to happen when romance readers read their favorite genre? Does it not happen when other readers read these books? These are not questions that literary research can answer, and I'd love to see us generate more and get academics in the relevant fields to work on them, alone or with us!

Radway's work also signals one of the limitations of of the "anthropological" approach, namely the distant, even superior tone that the analyst can adopt when studying such an odd, potentially dangerous, and almost certainly unworthy behavior as reading popular romance. I think here of the conclusion to her book, which imagines a world (after the Revolution, presumably) in which "the vicarious pleasure supplied by [romance] reading would be unneccessary" (222), and of comments such as this, from her introduction to the second edition (1991): "It might also be interesting to study similarly situated women who are non-romance readers in an effort to locate the absence (or perhaps the addition) of certain discursive competencies that renders the romance incomprehensible, uninteresting, or irrelevant" (9).

Does that parenthetical aside sound as smug to all of you as it does to me? Imagine the same sentence in an essay about the readership, or lack thereof, in poetry: "It might be interesting to study similarly situated people who are non-poetry readers in an effort to locate the absence (or perhaps the addition) of certain discursive competencies that renders poetry incomprehensible, uninteresting, or irrelevant." Hmmm.... sounds odd. Does it work with bad TV? "It might be interesting to study similarly situated people who are non-sitcom watchers in an effort to locate the absence (or perhaps the addition) of certain discursive competencies that renders The Dukes of Hazard incomprehensible, uninteresting, or irrelevant." (Feel free to fill in your favorite bad show.) That works better, doesn't it? Now let's try it with a beverage: "It might be interesting to study similiarly situated people who are non-Merlot drinkers in an effort to locate the absence (or perhaps the addition) or certain oenological competencies that renders Merlot unpalatable, uninteresting, or irrelevant..." and so on.

Bingo! Radway suggests--but softly, in parenthesis, so the children won't hear it--that really good readers, readers in the know, surely wouldn't like such books. Maybe I'm just touchy, but this strikes me as an argument from snobbery, finally: the sort that makes me wish that Radway had drawn on Bourdieu's Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979 in French, but published in English in 1984, the same year as Reading the Romance) rather than on Chodorow to analyse not only her data, but her own stance towards it.

I would love for future "anthropological" work on romance readers to be undertaken by academics sympathetic with, or at least neutral toward, romance fiction and the act of romance reading. We've had twenty years of books and essays that begin with the assumption that romance reading ("repetitive romance reading," Radway calls it: the dreaded 3R syndrome!) is essentially pathological, whether as the symptom of some political or psychological disease or even as, itself, the cause of such problems. Lynn S. Neal's Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction seems blessedly free of this bias, at least in the chapters I have read so far. Indeed, her introduction explicitly renounces such biases:
"Rather than lament how these women's lives would be better if only they would read and believe differently, I analyze how my consultants maintain their religious commitments through evangelical romance reading. This does not mean a lapse into recovery history or a celebration of romance reading, but rather a critical yet empathetic exploration of these women's religious lives. This approach...leaves one vulnerable to feminist critics and evangelical opponents; however, it more fully reveals the compicated piety of ordinary people" (10).
I can't tell you how relieved I was when I read those sentences, and how much I hope they presage a new generation of anthropological reader-research free of both political lamentation and sniffy aesthetic disdain. (There's a place for both in academic writing on romance, perhaps, but not in this kind of inquiry.)

So, what sorts of reader-response and sociological / anthropological research would all of you like to see us do? And, which is more, who's willing to step up and do it?

The Romance Reader as Connoisseur (2): Book Titles

I’ve been thinking about book titles since I wrote about Moira Manion’s comments on the titles of Harlequin Presents. Then Robin, in a review at the Smart Bitches said that ‘Rarely do I pay much attention to Romance novel titles; if not downright offensive, they’re often inane and rarely informative’. However Ro, a poster at AAR, commenting on this subject, gave a list of romances due for release in the coming year and said something that sounds like the complete opposite of what Robin had said:
--Wild and Wicked In Scotland
--Two Weeks With A Stranger
--Sinful Between the Sheets
--Too Great a Temptation
--The Sinful Nights of a Nobleman
--The Wicked Games of a Gentleman
And so on...
Whatever happened to those one word titles: "Scandal", "Desire", and what not? Now, the titles tell the entire story! (my emphasis)
So, who’s right? Do the titles ‘tell the entire story’ or are they uninformative?

Some (but not all) titles do indicate something about the setting (e.g. Scotland), protagonists (e.g. a stranger, nobleman or a gentleman) or the plot (temptation, two weeks), and a couple of them seem to me to indicate that the books are historical romances. Whether they’re truly ‘informative’ in the sense that they tell us a lot more than that, however, is another matter. And I don't know why there needs to be so much use of terms which originally had a spiritual meaning (sin, wicked etc). It’s a pet peeve of mine, no doubt due to studying a bit of theology and plenty of medieval texts where ‘temptation’, ‘wicked’ and ‘sinful’ were words which were not designed to entice, but to cause fear in the reader: I haven’t caught up with the idea that these words now sound enticing and delicious. It reminds me of the diabolical spin-doctors alluded to in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, who work steadily at changing the meaning of words. Screwtape, a senior Devil, is writing to his nephew, a junior Tempter:
Puritanism – and may I remark in passing that the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years? By it we rescue annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity, and sobriety of life. (1945: 55)
But I digress. So, back to romance titles. Looking at the pile of 10 Mills & Boon/Harlequin romances I chose at random recently from the library, it seems to me that their titles are informative, though they may be ‘offensive’ or misleading to some. Here’s the list. I hope it’s not too boring, but without giving examples, I really don’t think I can show how informative the titles are.

Contracted: Corporate Wife, by Jessica Hart (2005). Tender Romance
This suggests to me that this will be an office romance, involving businesspeople, and indeed, the heroine is the hero’s PA.

The Marriage Adventure by Hannah Bernard (2005). Tender Romance.
I’ve already blogged about this one, and at the heart of it is the struggle for control of the heroine’s family’s adventure holiday business.

The Five-Year Baby Secret
by Liz Fielding (2006). Tender Romance.
This one’s really obvious. It’s about a secret baby, and the baby is now a 5-year old.

The Bridal Chase, by Darcy Maguire (2005). Tender Romance.
There is a fair amount of chasing, with the heroine at times chasing the hero, and then she’s in retreat and he’s chasing her.

A Most Suitable Wife, by Jessica Steele (2005). Tender Romance.
The hero begins by believing that the heroine is completely unsuitable, only to realise that he was completely wrong and she’s perfect for him in every way.

Baby of Shame, by Julia James (2005). Modern Romance (this is the equivalent of the Harlequin Presents line).
I think the difference in title between this and The Five-Year Baby Secret is an indication of the difference between the two lines. In the Modern Romance/Presents line, there’s a lot more dramatic conflict, and that’s reflected in the title. It is, of course, another secret baby story, and the heroine is an unmarried mother.

The Mancini Marriage Bargain
by Trish Morey (2005). Modern Romance
The use of the name, Mancini, indicates there’s an Italian hero. The words ‘marriage bargain’ suggest a marriage that is not a love-match.

Blackmailed into Marriage
by Lucy Monroe (2005). Modern Romance
Another marriage which is entered into for reasons other than love. In this case the heroine’s family give her no option but to marry.

Mistress to a Rich Man by Kathryn Ross (2005). Modern Romance
I discussed this title in a previous blog entry. It’s not about a mistress, but the heroine has sex with the hero before either of them realise that they’re in love, and he’s rich.

Exposed: The Sheik’s Mistress
by Sharon Kendrick (2005). Modern Romance
Another not-really-a-mistress, but a relationship which, it appears, is not likely to lead to marriage, and the hero is a sheik. The ‘exposed’ part of the title refers to the fact that the affair becomes public knowledge thanks to reports in the media.

As mentioned before, authors usually don’t have control over the covers their books are given, and often they don’t even have the final say on the title. Betina Krahn and Candace Schuler, for example, have recently mentioned their least favourite covers, each of which included a title that wasn’t the one they'd originally thought of. How the editors and art departments make these decisions is a subject about which I know absolutely nothing, but I’m sure it must be because they think certain titles will be more appealing to the target audience. And I wonder if a large part of the appeal of titles like the ones mentioned by Ro, and those of the Harlequins I listed, is that they help the reader make a selection quickly.

So, to conclude, I think the titles usually indicate at least one of the following: the profession/status of the hero and/or heroine; the setting; the type of relationship (e.g. arranged marriage, a ‘mistress’ i.e. sexual relationship not entered into with any expectation of it leading to marriage); an important element of the plot (e.g. secret baby). All of this is information which the connoisseur reader of romances will understand and use when making a quick selection at the shops or the library.

Anyone got any favourite, or least favourite titles? Do they describe the book well? Do they entice you to read the book? And do they make it easy for someone browsing the shelves to tell that what's inside is a romance?

Lewis, C. S., 1945. The Screwtape Letters (London: Geoffrey Bles, The Centenary Press).

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Academics and Romance: Approaches and Challenges

About a month ago Brenda Coulter brought up questions about which romances academics would tend to study, and what sort of things we'd be looking for. In the past few days we've been examining the issues around how readers respond to what they read. I'm very much aware that this latter area isn't my specialism. I'm primarily interested in literary criticism (i.e. close analysis of the words in a text) and trying to understand how texts relate to their cultural context. Given that all academics aren't approaching the texts in the same way, and that some are more focussed on the readers than on the texts, I thought I'd write a quick summary of the different academic approaches to romance that I've noticed, and also discuss a few problems that I think might arise when studying the genre.

A while ago, on the listserv, we were discussing the various items on the Romance Wiki bibliography of scholarship on romance and I divided them up into roughly 4 groups, according to the approach taken towards the books studied (obviously I haven't read more than a small percentage of the items, but I've spotted trends in those I have read). There’s a lot of overlap, of course:
  • analysis of the readers- quite often the focus of studies has been on the readers of romance as academics have attempted to discover why readers read romance, how it fits into their daily lives, whether romance reading boosts self-esteem or promotes particular patterns of behaviour/attitudes towards relationships. Sometimes this sort of study touches on psychology (e.g. Radway’s theory that readers of romance are involved in 'an ongoing search for the mother and her characteristic care' (1991: 13)) and at other times on anthropology (Radway does this too – she carefully describes the group of readers, their income levels, family structures, geographical location etc). Librarians have also been interested in understanding readers, because while librarians want to encourage reading, and facilitate readers finding books they’ll be interested in, librarians also feel a pressure to offer readers ‘good’ literature. [There's an interesting audio discussion among Linda Esser, Charley Seavey, and Denice Adkins, all from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Information Science & Learning, about librarians' attitudes towards romance and romance readers here]
  • the historical/social approach, which attempts to analyse what the romance novel(s) tell us about the society/culture in which they were written and/or in which they're read. Related to this is the study of books as commodities, and how they've been marketed, and in that area there's been quite a lot of focus on Harlequin in particular.
  • a feminist perspective. A fairly large proportion of the existing articles/books on romance touch on feminism. This could really be included under the 'historical/social approach', but I thought it deserved to be mentioned separately, as many scholars have approached romance from a feminist perspective and/or have attempted to discover what romances can tell us about attitudes towards feminism.
  • literary criticism, anything from the extremely critical (which denigrates romances as badly-written) to the respectful and appreciative analysis of the formal structures of romance conducted by Pamela Regis.

I’m interested in literary criticism, because I enjoy looking closely at texts. I also think that detailed literary criticism of individual romance novels will demonstrate that many romances are neither badly written (however one defines ‘badly written’, and I think that’s often going to be a subjective decision) nor lacking in depth and complexity. I’m also interested in what romances have to say about feminism and society (and that includes what light they cast on relationships). I am concerned that even with all the possible academic approaches outlined above we may well still be missing out on the most vital element of all. I’ve written about how emotion is at the core of romance, but academic writing tends to be unemotional, and we strive for objectivity, providing textual ‘evidence’ for our views. Feminist and other recent literary theories have possibly changed things a little, by encouraging the critic to write about him or herself in relation to the text, to admit her/his own prejudices. But I’m still not sure this is enough to enable us to write about the emotions that we feel as we read a romance.

Kathleen Gilles Seidel has suggested that
We may not have a vocabulary with which to evaluate a text for the qualities that make fantasies vivid and immediate. The usual categories about tightly constructed plots and consistent, believable characters may not be relevant. The books have strengths that no one knows how to describe. [...] How can we account for the power of these books? [...] I can’t answer that question. I don’t know. (1992: 169-170)
One consequence of the problems surrounding how to write about how a particular text evokes emotion is that if academics want to write literary criticism, they're going to tend to choose books with the complex themes, imagery etc that are the fodder of literary analysis. That may mean that romance novels which are extremely successful as romances, because they make their readers feel, but which don't have the other characteristics which make them accessible to a literary critic, will be less likely to receive attention.

One solution might be to select a group of texts from a particular sub-genre, or which deal with a particular theme (e.g. Regencies or sheik romances). A danger with this method, however, could be that, as has happened not infrequently in the past, texts may be selected at random. Some studies of this sort do not even list the titles of the romances on which the findings are based. The results often present a homogenous picture of romances, and imply that they are formulaic, and, therefore, that one romance is much the same as another. However, as Radway noted, and as is even more obvious in these days of online review websites, romance readers have strong opinions about which romances are the best, and we certainly do not consider all romances to be equal. It seems to me that it would therefore be important to distinguish between trends in the sub-genre (which might also be apparent in the 'best' examples of that sub-genre) and the outstanding examples of the genre, which, it could be argued, represent the epitome of what that sub-genre is really about. There's a big difference between quantity and quality, though the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Another method of analysing texts which are 'good' but which don't have plentiful metaphors, motifs, etc would be to study a group of texts by the same author, to see if the juxtapositions makes the themes more apparent. In this way, even if the emotional content itself were not studied, these 'good' texts would not be completely neglected.

A significant problem facing academics wanting to study romance is that of locating texts. In a somewhat different context Jennifer Crusie said that:
Until publishers treat category fiction like works of art instead of cans of soup and writers like artists instead of cooks, we're going to be fighting an uphill battle. My fantasy is that a non-category publisher will recognize that short novels are an extremely marketable form, enter the field with respectable contracts and a promise to keep the books on the shelf for longer than thirty days
It's a good idea, and one which might ensure that someone reading an academic essay about a category romance, possibly several years or even decades after that romance was published, would still have a chance to read it. I'm not sure it’s going to happen, but category romance publishers do republish some of the more popular romances, and that, coupled with online availability of second-hand books, searchable by author and title, can make it easier to buy copies of an older, out of print romance. Nonetheless, even getting hold of the backlists of authors who’ve published in single-title can be a struggle sometimes. It's possible that e-publishing may provide a solution since the books can remain for sale for a very long time after they’re first ‘published’. But some ebooks require specific pieces of hardware onto which to download them, and librarians still have a lot of problems working out how to store electronic material. How can it be preserved for future generations when computer software and hardware changes so rapidly? Will some modern romances published in print be recognised as 'classics' and remain in library collections for longer than they currently do? At the moment, unless one pays a visit to a copyright library, it's likely that one won't be able to find many of the older romances, because the copies are usually discarded when they become tattered, and if they're out of print (as is the case with most category romances after only one month) they cannot, or will not, be replaced.

This is only an extremely brief overview, and I'm sure there's plenty I haven't thought of, or have missed out.

Gilles Seidel, Kathleen, 1992. 'Judge Me by the Joy I Bring', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 159-179.

Radway, Janice A. 1991. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, With a New Introduction by the Author (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press). Original edition published in 1984.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Do All Romance Readers Love a Hero?

Jennifer said that:
because the romance novel is written primarily by women, the heroes in them have been written to appeal to a woman's parameters for sexiness, desirability and compatibility. If I don't fall a little in love with the hero myself, then the novel is not as good for me. And what straight male reader wants to feel drawn to the man?!
Laura Kinsale said something similar about the (female) romance reader’s relationship with romance heroes:
I have my own hunches about why the chemistry of reading a romance is so heavily weighted toward the male character. It is fairly obvious that the bottom line is sexual admiration: to me, a large part of it feels like a simple, erotic, and free-hearted female joy in the very existence of desirable maleness. Hey, women like men. (1992: 36-37)
Radway, however, describes the relationship between reader and hero somewhat differently, saying that each romance:
provides vicarious emotional nurturance by prompting identification between the reader and a fictional heroine whose identity as a woman is always confirmed by the romantic and sexual attentions of an ideal male. When she successfully imagines herself in the heroine’s position, the typical romance reader can relax momentarily and permit herself to wallow in the rapture of being the center of a powerful and important individual’s attention. This attention not only provides her with the sensations evoked by emotional nurturance and physical satisfaction, but, equally significantly, reinforces her sense of self because in offering his care and attention to the woman with whom she identifies, the hero implicitly regards that woman and, by implication, the reader, as worthy of his concern (1991: 113)
What I find interesting about this is not just that Radway doesn’t mention that the reader may have a physical, sexual, response to the hero (although perhaps that’s what’s hinted at when she mentions ‘physical satisfaction’), it’s also that she seems to be simultaneously saying that the reader is ‘in the heroine’s position’ and identifying with the heroine. There’s a big difference. In the first case, the reader is taking the place of the heroine, possibly imagining how it would feel to oust the heroine from the hero’s affections. In the second, she’s imagining herself as the heroine, wanting to be the heroine.

And what about readers who don’t do either of these things? I don’t want to deny the validity of Jennifer and Laura Kinsale’s reading experiences, but I don’t think the wish to fall in love with the hero is one that’s shared by all readers. Speaking for myself, I know I don’t fall in love with romance heroes. As a young teen I did have a crush on D’Artagnan (from The Three Musketeers) but neither Mr Darcy nor any other romance hero has ever made my heart beat faster. I think this is because in romances the author shows us (or should show us) that the protagonists have a good relationship, and that they love each other and are compatible. This being the case, it seems to me that the two are literally made for each other, and even supposing the hero weren’t fictional, any woman (other than the heroine) who fell in love with a romance hero would be headed for the pain of unrequited longings.

I’m not giving my feeling and experiences as an example because I’m convinced I’m representative (I suspect I’m not), or even because I think my reading experiences will be of great interest (I doubt that), I’m just bringing them up because I think it shows that just as there is a great deal of variety among romance novels, there is also variety among romance readers with regards to their reading experiences, and so one ought to be careful before making generalisations about the romance reader and what she (and the romance reader is generally assumed to be a she) likes, and why she reads.

Obviously a blog isn’t the appropriate place to carry out an academically rigorous study of romance readers, but I’ll ask a few more questions anyway. I wonder, how many readers feel the same way as Jennifer and Laura Kinsale? And do readers who feel that way want to be the heroine, or do they wish they could steal her man? Does everyone want to ‘fall a little in love’ with one of the main characters in a romance? Is it only heterosexual or bisexual women who do this while reading romances about heterosexual couples, or do male heterosexual readers fall in love with the heroine? Do gay male readers of romances about heterosexual couples fall in love with the hero? Do lesbians fall in love with heterosexual romance heroines?

I was also wondering if the reaction of falling in love with the hero is one which only occurs while reading the romance genre. Do readers who fall in love with the heroes of romances (or the heroines of romances) also fall in love with characters in non-romance novels? Is there something different about the way a reader engages with a romance? Does the fact that the story is about love make the reader more inclined to fall in love with one of the characters herself/himself?

Kinsale, Laura, 1992. ‘The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance’, in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 31-44.

Radway, Janice A., 1991. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).