Monday, April 30, 2007

Pam Rosenthal at LustBites

Not to feed the hands that bit me (grin), but there's a fascinating interview with Pam Rosenthal (AKA Molly Weatherfield) over at LustBites today. As a RomanceScholar I was particularly struck by this passage--
I’m committed to using every bit of “literary” form I figure out how to use, in order to say what I want to say as precisely as I can. I don’t see a conflict between “popular” and “literary” writing—from where I sit, all narrative writing has its roots in the paradoxes of satisfied and unsatisfied desire.
--and by this one:
I wanted to think about, to work through how libido and intellect, the urge to tell stories and the need to be ravished by narrative, are parts of the same wonderful, mysterious thing. And I thought I could try to do this through the voice of this fearless, funny, brainy character—who seemed on the one hand like an idealized fantasy view of my younger reading self and on the other hand as Generic Girl Character. The name “Carrie,” actually started out as a sort of private joke on “character.”
No time for extended meditations at the moment, but I must confess, whenever I hit a post like this, I feel like quoting Prof. Van Helsing in Dracula: "There is work, wild work, to be done!"

(I quite liked the "Friday Fairy Tale" posted by Janine Ashbless as well. Good stuff, that blog.)

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Wedding Days

I have a vague memory of reading quite a few romances in which the hero is let in on the secret that every young girl starts planning her wedding from the moment she's old enough to walk. It's obviously not a very good sign that I remember this one thing, but can't remember anything else about the novels. The reason the memory of this 'secret' stuck with me was that I didn't think it was true. I certainly didn't spend years planning a dream wedding. In fact, when the time did come to plan my wedding, I tried to keep things as basic as possible.

Recently I've come across a couple of stories which raised doubts about how important all the wedding-day details really are. Here's an excerpt from Leigh Michaels' Backwards Honeymoon:
They'd talked to the judge and set up an appointment for midmorning on Friday - just thirty-six hours off now. What else was there to do?
How different this was than the circus atmosphere surrounding the wedding she'd run away from. No fancy gown and veil to be fitted one last time, no Antoine to fuss with a dozen possible ways to do her hair, no ushers and bridesmaids to entertain, no platinum and diamond rings to have sized, no reception menu to need final approval...
She wondered idly if the real reason for all the traditions surrounding weddings was simply to keep the bride too busy to think. Without dresses and hair and attendants and rings and food to worry about, a woman had a lot more time to wonder if she was crazy to get married at all. (2002: 218-219)
Jayne Ann Krentz's short story, Congratulations, You've Just Won, also suggests that the wedding preparations might get in the way of thinking about marriage. I liked it, and although it's very short, I think it's a perfect example of Krentz's 'voice'.

And while we're on the topic of thinking more about the wedding day than the marriage, I thought I'd mention this list of Questions Couples Should Ask (Or Wish They Had) Before Marrying from The New York Times. Michele Weiner-Davis notes that 'Rumor has it that' this article, 'a Dec. 17, 2006, New York Times list of 15 key questions, was the second most e-mailed story at last year and the third most read article on its Web site for 2006' and she offers her own advice about things couples should be thinking of before the wedding.

So how do you feel about weddings? Is the wedding day 'the best day of your life'? Can you expect to have a 'perfect day'? Did you know that some people are spending so much on their weddings that they're also taking out insurance to cover costs should there be any 'unexpected hiccups'? It's worth noting, though that 'insurance policies don't cover cold feet. So if you get ditched at the altar, it will be your finances, as well as your heart, that is broken'.
  • Michaels, Leigh, 2002. Backwards Honeymoon (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon). This is a large-print edition.

Clipart from the Bridal Association of America's Free Wedding Clip Art collection.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Eric at Romancing the Blog

Eric's posted at Romancing the Blog today, as mentioned in his recent post here at Teach Me Tonight.

He's discussing a comment by Olivia Knight:
“With erotica sliding increasingly towards erotic romance,” she wrote, “the Happily Ever After question raises its dewy-eyed head with some peculiarly specific problems.” The problems she has in mind are structural
Am I the only one whose euphemism-sensors began to sound an alert while reading that? Or should I be washing my brain out with soap?

* The photo is of a pink anthurium and can be found at Wikipedia.

Eros is Eros is Eros?

One of Robin's comments on Laura's last post--specifically, her observation that "most Romance is related to the process of domesticating the erotic in one way or another"--reminded me of the lively debate at the PCA convention earlier this month over the nature and definition--or, rather, the competing definitions--of "erotic romance." (Sarah's summary is here; scroll down, as it was the last paper; I have posted on related matters over at Romancing the Blog this morning.)

Robert Waxler, whose paper began the discussion, comes at the topic with a sense of "the erotic "that goes back to the Greek idea of Eros. Eros is, simply by definition, desire for what you do not have. It means lack, or absence, it depends on a triangular structure comprised, on some fundamental level, of the desirer, the one who is desired, and that which stands between them. As Anne Carson puts it in Eros the Bittersweet, that third term “connects and separates, marking that two are not one, irradiating the absence whose presence is demanded by eros” (16). For what we might think of as companionate love, there are other terms, other gods.

The experience of Eros is always paradoxical, writes Carson, or at least oxymoronic--it's the simultaneous experience of pleasure and pain, love and hate. It's all about ambivalence, including moral ambivalence: our moral sense shatters at the impact of eros, she writes, paraphrasing Sappho (among others). Hence, in part, the reason why literature about eros returns again and again to morally touchy actions and impulses, from the "forced seduction" fantasies we've been discussing here recently to scenes and fantasies of murder or murder / suicide (cue Wagner, baby; it's time for our big liebestod duet). Eros is, therefore, an “issue of boundaries”: fundamentally the “boundary of flesh and self between you and me. And it is only, suddenly, at the moment when I would dissolve that boundary, I realize I never can” (30).

In the literary versions of "erotic romance" that Bob studies, this realization leads, more often than not, to tragedy. The effort to "dissolve that boundary"--to say "I am Heathcliff," and make it stick--drives the hero to all sorts of nasty behavior. In the erotic romance that emerges from the romance genre, however, it seems to me that things tend to turn out much more happily. Not just because of the HEA requirement of the genre, but also because the genre isn't really about this sort of metaphysical "eros" at all, except on rare occasions. (Emma Holly's Hunting Midnight may be one of them.) Rather, it's about sex, about libido as a many-splendored thing, in the characters and in the reader. But their libido romps or frisks or sulks or revives in a context--at first or eventually--of friendship, mutuality, and companionship. Those don't show up at all in Carson's account of Eros, and I have a hunch that any theory of love that derives primarily from that particular source will be unable to say much of interest or use about the popular versions of the genre.

In an email after the conference, Bob told me that he could not think of a text "that gives us a full vision of both soul and body (flesh--not bones) being resurrected and unified (even in the Gospels)" and no "significant" text that
gives us a sense of what it would mean to be a "total individual" (the full package) and a total social (if not Divine) being. There is always "a gap" (even with the Platonic ladder of love)--and there is never equality in this context--usually some hint of a sado-masochistic relationship, and a sense of incompletion (the mortal wound).
Now, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what some of these terms mean, especially the ones having to do with totality. Nor am I sure that equality and SM, at least in real life, are necessarily at odds. But I can think of some pretty significant texts of happy love, love comprised not simply of classical eros, but of some lively mix of libido, friendship, tenderness, and mutual esteem. ("Perfect esteem enlivened by desire," as James Thomson puts it in "Spring," from The Seasons, 1728) Let's see: there's the Song of Songs, Donne's "Good Morrow" and "The Sun Rising" and "The Ecstasy," and maybe even (with some bittersweetness) Paradise Lost as well. Pride and Prejudice? Persuasion? A flock of Victorians, I'd wager. And perhaps there are "texts" in other genres: paintings, music, etc? Says C. S. Lewis at one point, after all, "We are under no obligation at all to sing all our love-duets in the throbbing, world-without-end, heart-breaking manner of Tristan and Isolde; let us often sing like Papageno and Papagena instead" (The Four Loves).

Let's help a fellow RomanceScholar find his moorings! Who would be some of the authors and texts he should consider as he sails in search of other, less fraught, more "romance-novel-ready" traditions of love?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Jennifer Crusie - Crazy for You

Having raised the issues of rape and forced seduction in the context of Elizabeth Thornton's Fallen Angel, I'd like to look at how Jennifer Crusie deals with some of the same issues in Crazy for You.*

As usual this isn't a review, so there will be spoilers. You can find reviews here, here and here and there are also Jenny Crusie's notes on the novel and an excerpt.

Crusie has written that one of the reasons that romance has been 'reviled by radical feminists' and been 'called "fiction that promotes abusive relationships"' is that:
romance fiction says that sometimes women like to be overpowered sexually.

Politically incorrect though it may be, the rape fantasy not only exists, it's popular. And unless a heck of a lot of women are participating in their own degradation (not impossible given the Fifties), there's something important and valuable that women are getting from it. An examination of rape fantasies shows that for the most part, the fantasy isn't rape at all, it's non-responsibility; that is, somebody [...] sweeps away the heroine's (and the reader's) good-girl objections with the sheer force of his animal nature to give her the best sex of all time, and she's not responsible because she said no. [...] Does this weaken the important "if she says no it was rape" guideline? Only for those who confuse reality and fantasy, and the vast majority of readers can tell the difference.

Not all feminists reject the rape fantasy, either; Susie Bright has argued that the politically correct sexuality demanded in the past is repressive and has proposed a "Do Me Feminism" based on the theory that if a woman likes it, it's good regardless of political thought [...]. Romance fiction has been "Do Me Feminist" for decades. (Crusie 1998)
Jenny's latest thoughts on the issue of rape in romance can be found here.

Clearly the contexts in which rapes occur in different romance novels can vary greatly. Some heroes show far more contrition than others, for example, and the ideological subtexts underpinning the events may also vary. Crusie herself never presents 'true love' as an excuse for rape or abuse, nor do her heroes ever commit rape. Her heroes and heroines appear to have pretty equally matched libidos and her heroines are never innocent virgins, ignorant of their sexuality. What we do have in Crazy for You, however, is a text which explores the boundaries between the abusive and the acceptable.

Angel commented that in many romances which include a rapist hero
The rape of the heroine is but one part of the violation committed against her -- the author, the God of her world, gives all the power to her rapist, organizes every event against her. Creates her only to put a noose around her slender neck and tighten it chapter by chapter.
Crazy for You offers the reader a case study of a social context which 'gives all the power' to a man (in this case, however, Bill is not the hero) and gives him the freedom to become increasingly threatening towards the heroine, Quinn.** Elizabeth Blakesley Lindsay, in her review of the novel, catalogues the escalating abuse suffered by Quinn. Blakesley Lindsay admits to 'skimming the last third' of the novel because she was upset by the content, so her chronology is perhaps not completely accurate, but she does give a comprehensive overview of this aspect of the plot. She is right in identifying violence against women as an important theme in the novel, but I think she is wrong to suggest that 'Crazy for You treats violence against women like a joke'.

This is a novel which explores the social attitudes which may lead to denial that real rape and abuse are taking place. Some people believe myths about rape and domestic violence. For example, they may mistakenly believe that it is easy to spot a rapist. In fact, 'Rapists are not physically identifiable. They may appear friendly, normal, and non-threatening. Many are young, married and have children' (Hamlin 2001). Similarly
Domestic violence crosses ethnic, racial, age, national origin, sexual orientation, religious and socio-economic lines as well as class, physical or mental ability and status as a refugee, migrant or prisoner. Women are most at risk of physical and sexual assault and homicide from men they know, often their husband, male partner or ex-partner. They are more likely to be injured or murdered by a spouse than any other person. Although women can also be violent, the vast majority of partner abuse is perpetrated by men against their female partners'.

USA: approximately 1/3 of the men counselled for battering are professional men who are respected in their jobs and their communities. These have included doctors, psychologists, lawyers, ministers and business executives. (World Alliance of YMCAs)
In Crazy for You, 'at six foot five, two hundred and forty-three healthy blond pounds, Bill was a Viking's Viking. All of Tibbett adored Bill' (2000: 4). Because (almost) all of Tibbett adores Bill, the members of the community find it difficult to believe that he could be acting inappropriately and increasingly abusively towards Quinn. Even after Bill has illegally entered Quinn's house and sabotaged it so that she will be physically harmed, the local police chief is 'not real interested' because 'Bill is God around here, all that charity shit he does and the work with the kids. Frank just didn't want to hear it' (2000: 250). Bill is one of those many abusers who is 'respected in their jobs and their communities' and the local community is reluctant to have its belief and trust in him shattered.

Crusie doesn't simply show the reader that respected members of the community may be abusers, she also demonstrates that there is a very fine line between some acceptable and unacceptable male attitudes towards women. Bill is in many ways the embodiment of masculinity:
His face was set in the benevolent Captain of the Universe look that had earned him the respect of all of Tibbett. A real man's man, her father had said when she'd brought him home the first time. Which would explain why she didn't want him now. Let the men have him. (2000: 28)
Nick, the hero, understands Bill's behaviour because it's based on attitudes/responses that he has himself:
[Quinn] "I don't understand Bill at all." [...]
[Nick] "I do. I think he's a jerk and we're calling the police right now, but I understand him. He thinks you belong to him."
[Quinn] "Listen, I have told him - "
[Nick] "You told me, too, and I didn't go away." He sat next to her on the couch, taking her hand, trying to make her understand so she wouldn't look so lost. "For the past two weeks, I've waited, and I've watched you, and I knew you'd come back to me because you belong to me. Every guy thinks that about the woman he loves." [...] "Look, I know it's not right, but that's the way it is. I watch you walk [...] and I look at your butt and I think, That's mine. [...] Even when you were saying no, you were mine. It doesn't go away. You can't talk me out of that. Every move you make belongs to me. I know it's wrong, and I don't care."
"Oh," Quinn said.
"And the problem is, Bill doesn't even know it's wrong. He just knows you're his and you're not with him." (2000: 291-292)***
Max, Nick's brother, is having problems with his wife Darla, and his words echo Bill's: "She's my wife," Max said stubbornly. "She belongs to me. I'll just wait. She'll come to her senses." (2000: 240). Bill thinks the same way: 'He couldn't understand it; he was giving her so much time. When was she going to stop this and let him back in?' (2000: 222) and 'I know you're upset right now, but that's really just stubbornness. You knew we'd get back together sooner or later' (2000: 315). Both Quinn and Darla have been bored in their relationships. Quinn said of her relationship with Bill that 'what we have, it's not exciting. I've never had exciting. And with the way Bill plans things, I'm never going to have exciting.' (2000: 20). Darla leaves Max because the excitement had gone out of their relationship and when she wanted to get it back 'He said, "What the hell's the matter with you?" and I said, "I want something different," and he said, "Well, I don't," so I left for awhile' (2000: 172). However, Max and Darla do recapture the excitement, as Max makes changes and, in the process, acknowledges Darla's needs and individuality. Bill never does, and since the start of his relationship with Quinn he's been making her fit in with his needs and wishes: 'When he'd met Quinn, he'd known instantly that she was the one [...] It had taken him a year to convince her to let him move in, and another six months to get her to move to the great apartment he'd found for them, but she'd understood in the end, and now his life was perfect' (2000: 24).

Ironically, given that it's Bill who's been manipulating Quinn, at first she takes the blame for shaping Bill:
Looking at his smug, sure face, Quinn realized she'd created a monster. Bill thought she was going to give in because she always had; so why should he expect anything else? She'd trained him to be smug. She looked around. This wasn't even her apartment. Bill had picked it out and moved them in, and when she said, "It's too beige," he'd said, "It's five minutes from school," and that made so much sense she'd given up. (2000: 30)
The reader, however, can see that Bill's behaviour was not caused by Quinn but is the direct result of his philosophy about relationships. Bill is
a man who'd taken the Tibbett High football team to five consecutive championships and the baseball team to four - fifth one coming right up - almost solely, Quinn believed, by never considering the possibility of defeat. "Know where you want to be and go there," he'd tell the boys (2000: 2).
He considers himself to be a leader and his method is to be persistent and let nothing get in the way of his success. As he tells Robert Gloam, the School Principle, this attitude will work in other relationships too:
I make it clear what I want from them [the boys]. I don't get upset, I just expect them to deliver. [...] Take this thing with Quinn and the dog. She knows we can't have a dog, so I just kept reminding her of that until she agreed to give it to Edie. [...] You let people know what they have to do to earn your approval, and they'll do that. (2000: 23-24)
Bill never once questions why people would want his approval. In addition, it would seem that he is particularly likely to use his technique on women and children/young adults, perhaps because he expects them to look up to him. As Shulamith Firestone observed, women and children have often been grouped together and treated as inferiors by men but because the 'oppression of women and children is couched in the phraseology of "cute" it is much harder to fight than open oppression. [...] If she responds to his, "Baby you're looking good today!" with "No better than when I didn't know you," he will grumble, "What's eating that bitch?" Or worse.' (1972: 89) Clearly not every compliment is a patronising way of putting a woman or child in his or her place by reinforcing the idea that she or he should want, and be pleased to receive, a compliment from a man but, as with Bill's expectation that others will want his approval, this may be a subtext in some cases. Robert certainly expects women to accept his authority and can't understand his secretary's behaviour: 'I mean, sometimes I think she's defying me' (2000: 23) and 'Edie's another one I'm not too sure about. [...] These older women do not understand authority' (2000: 24).

The idea that women need male 'protection' also perpetuates the idea that males are superior beings whom women and children should respect. When Nick pays part of Quinn's mortgage without telling her, Quinn is furious and compares Nick to Bill:
"It was Bill," she said. "He went behind my back to screw it up."
"That's what I figured."
"And then you went behind my back to fix it," she said. "Pretty patriarchal of you, wasn't it?" (2000: 196)
Barbara, who works at the bank, expects Quinn to be pleased.
"I think it's wonderful," Barbara said. "He's taking care of you. You're so lucky."
"I'd rather take care of myself," Quinn said. "I'd rather he treated me as if I were capable of taking care of myself."
"Why?" Barbara looked at her so blankly that Quinn said, "I don't get you. You have a real career at the bank, and you make good money. Why are you so fixated on getting a man to support you?"
Barbara drew back, two spots of color flaming in her cheeks. "I don't need a man to support me. I'd never depend on a man for money." (2000: 186)
Quinn knows that being 'protected' in this way contains the assumption that she, like a child, is not 'capable of taking care of myself'. Barbara doesn't need a man financially, but emotionally she feels unsafe without one:
"It's just so hard to find somebody to take care of you, you know? When you find a good repairman, you know you're lucky." [...] "And I feel so safe, and I know who I am because I'm with this wonderful man who knows everything." She came back to earth and said, "But it always turns out he doesn't. It's so disappointing because they always say they do, you know? But they don't, and you can't trust them after all." (2000: 187)
Barbara never finds her ideal repairman and Crusie shows us, through Bill's actions, that male protectiveness may at times be more of a threat than a source of security. His knowledge, which might once have been used to keep Quinn 'safe', is now used to threaten her:
On his way up the stairs, he noticed how flimsy the railing was. Just bolted to the wall. It could come loose any time. If he lived here, he'd make sure there was a better railing. She really needed him there.
He slowed as he neared the top of the stairs. Maybe that was it. Maybe if she realized how much she needed him -
He went back downstairs to the back porch and found Quinn's toolbox. With the screwdriver he loosened the bolts on the stair rail, and then went through the house, loosening other screws, to doorknobs and outlet plates, loosening the wires behind the plates, too. He thought of other things he could do. He could loosen the gas lines so there'd be just a little leak, nothing big. The steps to the front porch were awful. He could weaken one so it would go later, so everything wouldn't be bad at once. He could loosen a porch rail. He could do lots of things. She'd need him again. (2000: 235)
Bill wants to trap Quinn into 'needing' him the same way that Barbara 'needs' a man. But a relationship based on such needs, rather than emotional closeness and mutual support, is one of dependency, in which the power is in the hands of the male who has knowledge of technology and handicrafts. His offer of 'safety' is perhaps more of an 'offer you can't refuse' rather than an offer which is embraced freely and out of love. This new understanding of what might be implicit in offers of protection makes Quinn and Edie wary of masculine use of such language:
[Nick] "I'll be there. So will Max. She'll never leave my sight."
"Just like Bill," Edie said.
"Nothing like Bill," Nick said. (2000: 250)
[Nick] "[...] I want to take care of you."
Quinn tied not to wince at the echo of Bill. (2000: 302)
Turning now to the rape fantasy, it is Quinn who mentions that this is something she wants:
Maybe if she smiled at him tomorrow night, he could take her on the wrestling mats at the back of the stage, a sort of pseudo-rape fantasy because she'd be too tired to contribute. He could do all the work. Screw equality. (2000: 272)
These three sentences demonstrate the complexity of the concept of the rape fantasy. Is Quinn implying that an 'equal' contribution she'd make if she wasn't tired would be for her to pretend to be unwilling? Is the 'screwing' unequal literally (rather than metaphorically) if she doesn't? Or is equality metaphorically 'screwed' in this sort of fantasy anyway? Quinn's thoughts also make it clear that this is not real rape: it cannot be rape if the woman is planning what will happen to her. Shortly after this, Nick, the hero, arrives and fulfills her fantasy (though against a wall, not on a mat). No mention is made of rape during the scene, but Nick does suggest that Quinn is in danger: ' "You shouldn't be here alone," he said. "You know that. It's dangerous," and she said, "I'm not alone. You're here"' to which he responds 'That's even worse' and 'He came closer to stand in front of her, not smiling' (2000: 274). Unlike Bill, who is blond and looks heroic (but is the real danger), Nick looks dangerous but doesn't pose a real threat. Earlier, Quinn had thought that
He'd always been the wild Ziegler brother, but she'd never quite understood that part because she always felt so safe with him. Until he looked at her like that. Until she'd looked back and really seen him, dark and dangerous and full of infinitely impractical possibilities. Really, he was the perfect guy for her right now: a bad guy who would never hurt her. Excitement without risk. (2000: 75)
The fine line between real danger and pretence is one which may not be grasped by onlookers such as Quinn's neighbour:
"[...] I thought he [Bill] just had the hots for her, you know? Looking in the window. Big deal."
"He's dangerous," Nick said.
"So are you." Patsy looked him up and down. "But I guess you're hers, right?" (2000: 249)
Of course, Bill thinks that he's Quinn's too. The underlying attitudes of the two men are not very dissimilar, as Nick acknowledges. He, like Bill, thinks that 'Even when you were saying no, you were mine. It doesn't go away. You can't talk me out of that' (2000: 292). Apart from Nick's knowledge that his possessiveness is 'wrong' (2000: 292), the other main differences between Bill and Nick's possessive attitudes towards Quinn are (1) Quinn consents to Nick's behaviour because she wants him and (2) Bill is prepared to use increasing force. These differences are highlighted in two scenes in which each man presses Quinn up against a wall. Crusie's said of the scene with Nick that it's one which she 'rewrote and made tamer because my editor said the original version was “icky.” Too close to rape'. The parallels still remain. Here are some quotations from the scene with Nick:
  • He came closer to stand in front of her, not smiling. [...] And he came closer. [...] He took another step closer, until he was almost against her (2000: 274)
  • He put his hand on her crossed wrists and rested against them, just firmly enough so she couldn't move them' (2000: 274)
  • Let me go," she said, and tried to pull her hands from his grip so she could touch him [...] but he tightened his hold, crushing her wrists together, stretching her arms higher (2000: 276)
  • "Louder," he said in her ear as he stroked her. "Scream"' (2000: 276)
  • "We better stop," Quinn whispered [...] "I don't think so," Nick whispered against her ear. "I think we do this now. Right up against this wall." (2000: 277)
  • "I'm going to take you hard against this wall," he whispered [...] Harder than you've ever been had before. So hard you're going to feel me with every move you make for a week. You're going to remember you were mine every time you breathe."' (2000: 277, my emphasis ***).
Here what excites Quinn is 'the roughness of him, the darkness of him, the difference and the danger of him' (2000: 278) but when Bill is rough, different and dangerous in the dark her reaction is very different. Bill has turned the 'rape fantasy' into a real assault (not rape, because Quinn manages to escape):
  • "I want to talk," he said, and crowded her closer, liking the way she stepped back [...] so that he moved closer and closer again until she was up against the building, nowhere to go. (2000: 283)
  • he caught at her wrists to hold her there. [...] She tried to twist her hands away and he held her tighter, felt the fragile bones in her wrists crunch together (2000: 283)
  • Quinn tried to jerk her wrists free, but there was no way, not anymore, he'd had enough, so he pulled her close and then shoved her really hard against the building to make her listen, and her head smacked against the wall, and she cried out and blinked back tears, pain (2000: 285)
Nick explains that his sense of possessiveness, his feeling that Quinn is his, is
" [...] the reason I trapped you against that wall after you blew me off for those weeks. I took you back." [...] "Sorry."
"I'm not." She opened her eyes again and looked at him fully. "I was just overwhelmed by how sexy that was. Politically incorrect as hell, but really, really sexy." (2000: 291)
Interestingly, in a replay of the sex-against-the-wall scene, Crusie reverses the power dynamics between Quinn and Nick, which perhaps reasserts the underlying equality in their relationship, which has always been based on friendship, not control:
"You're mine," she told him.
"Works for me." He ran his hands up her sides until she caught at his wrists and pulled them over his head.
"You are going to feel me for a week," she whispered, moving against him.
"Honey, I already feel you every minute of the day." [...]
Quinn was breathless. "This domination thing doesn't seem to work when I do it," she grumbled [...]
"Oh, I don't know." Nick kissed her neck [...] "We get some leather and handcuffs in here, you could do some damage."
Quinn let go of him. "I can do some damage without leather," she whispered [...].
"Oh, Christ," she heard Nick say [...] "You're right. I'm yours."
Damn right, she thought, and took him. (2000: 299-300)
  • Crusie, Jennifer, 2000. Crazy for You (London: Pan Books). The cover photo is of this edition. The novel has appeared with many other covers, often in bright colours, but this one seems to me to convey something of the sense of danger present in the novel. There's some discussion about covers for romances which contain rape here, though the discussion did get very off-topic at times, as it was a continuation of the previous thread, about rape in romance.
  • Firestone, Shulamith, 1972. The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York: Bantam).
  • Thornton, Elizabeth, 2004. Fallen Angel (New York: Zebra).

* One of the differences between Crusie's novel and Thornton's is that Thornton presents the rapist hero as the heroine's fate/destiny. Crusie, however, begins her novel with a rather different manifestation of destiny: 'Quinn McKenzie lifted her eyes from the watercolor assignments on the desk in front of her and met her destiny. Her destiny was a small black dog with desperate eyes, so she missed the significance at first. [...] It looked cold and scared and hungry and anxious' (2000: 1). Over at Jenny's thread about rape in romance, she agreed that 'animal torture is beyond the pale' for a hero and it's Bill's attitude towards the dog which first cues the reader in to the fact that Bill is not the hero: he wants it removed and isn't terribly troubled by the idea that the dog might be euthanised if taken to the pound. By contrast in Fallen Angel the hero may be a rapist but he's good with animals. Prior to the rape there's a scene in which a
ball of black fur [...] came streaking round the corner of the house. The ball launched itself at Maddie's feet where it lay panting.
"Good grief! I think it's a dog," exclaimed Deveryn.
Maddie sank to her heels and embraced the shivering creature. "Kelpie!" she cried. [...] It was then that she observed that the animal at her feet, under the coat of matted hair, was painfully emaciated.
Deveryn squatted beside Maddie and gently scratched Kelpie's ears. "Easy girl, I won't hurt you," he said in a low soothing voice, and his fingers splayed out as he probed beneath the filth infested coat of hair. ( Thornton 2004: 84)
I suspect that the parallels between the training of children by Bill, the 'gentling' of animals by Deveryn and their beliefs about training/gentling women are not accidental. Ascione, Weber & Wood (1997), for example, have noted the 'potential confluence of child maltreatment, domestic violence, and animal maltreatment'. Similarly, The Humane Society of the United States warn that
# Animal abuse exposes the deliberateness of battering rather than loss of control.
# Animal abuse and child abuse are closely related.
# Animal abuse is often a tool used by batterers to emotionally control or coerce victims.
The UK's NSPCC state that 'There is increasing research and clinical evidence which suggests that there are sometimes inter-relationships, commonly referred to as ‘links’, between the abuse of children, vulnerable adults and animals'. I wonder if, in some romances (certainly not all, because the way in which rape is depicted in romance, and the subtexts present in each text can vary greatly), the implicit subtext present when a rapist hero is kind to children or animals is that he isn't an abuser but, rather, is carrying out a sort of 'training' of the heroine, teaching her to accept her sexuality in the same way that Deveryn makes sure that the dog Kelpie is given a bath, whether she wants it or not, for her own good. The converse certainly seems to be true: individuals in romance who abuse animals or harm children may also rape, but they are not cast as heroes. The Smart Bitches recently reviewed an erotic romance in which the hero rapes/forces the heroine. There is also a villain who's a rapist and, as Sarah observed 'It’s usually the scene [of] animal abuse that serves as the first clue to a villain. In this case, it’s not animal abuse but sexual abuse and murder of children'. In that particular case the comparison between the actions of the hero and those of the villain was so obvious that Sarah wrote:
the contrast between sexually explicit exploration of female domination and the use of sex as a tool of violent domination over children. I get it - sexual domination isn’t always good or always bad but has a place within consensual activities - but no need to hit me over the head with it.
** In her comments about community Crusie has observed that
the reader will bond to the community in the book if the community appears to share her values, which means the characters would recognize her as one of their own if she came into the story and would invite her to sit down and stay. This one is pretty much out of your hands: the reader chooses the kind of book he or she likes to read, the type of book that has the kind of community that shares her values
Fictional communities, as Crusie notes, tend to have shared values which find expression in 'a common goal [...] and a common language of experiences and catchphrases'. Tibbett, as we shall see, is a place where there are common values/attitudes and a common language. Clearly some individuals within the community take the shared Tibbett language of possession/protection very much more literally than others. I wonder whether some readers who reject the book do so because they associate the whole community with attitudes which potentially permit abuse.

*** These words are also to be found in the lyrics of Every Breath You Take, by The Police.

P.S. In the review at the Smart Bitches site, Sarah took issue with the conclusion in which Katie the dog behaves 'as if she knew Bill was locked up for at least her life span' (2000: 323) because 'Stalkers do not go to jail for years and years. [...] Stalking is not punished to nearly the degree that it should be, and to make an exception for a happily ever after yanked me right out of the fantasy and pissed me off'. Bill has, of course, been stalking, but during the course of the story Quinn also alerted the police to his attempt at rape, and her father told them about the sabotage of her house (which could be construed as attempted murder, given that it included a gas leak and making her stairs a danger to her). During the final attack the police are able to witness the fact that Bill is guilty of breaking and entering Quinn's property, he perpetrates cruelty against an animal and there's also the issue of the assault on Robert Gloam which leaves Robert needing facial surgery. I don't know how the law in Ohio deals with such crimes, but I'd imagine that they would lead to Bill receiving a lengthy prison sentence.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sarah at Romancing the Blog

Sarah's having a busy week! Her latest blog post at Romancing the Blog is now up. She's discussing reader preferences, in particular with regards to romance heroes and heroines.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Interview at Dear Author

Eric Selinger and I were "interviewed" by Jane Litte at Dear Author. The interview, in all its lengthy glory, can be found here. Notice the 1-6 at the bottom of the screen: if you get two academics at their computers answering questions about their current academic obsession, you're going to get a long document!

AND Jane just emailed me to let me know that they are on a USA Today feed, and the first page of the interview was picked up.

William Gleason at Romance: By the Blog

On Monday 16 April Associate Professor William Gleason
and his class who have been studying 'popular works of American literature in their historical contexts' are visiting Romance: By the Blog. Michelle invites romance readers to participate because she sees this as 'a chance to help some smart students of literature develop responsible, informed opinions about the value of romance fiction'. Here's her 'call for readers' and here's the post we're being asked to comment on and contribute to.

Here are some of the questions the students asked:

  • Why isn’t Gone With the Wind a romance?
  • What’s your favorite part of a romance novel?
  • Do you consider romance novels a form of pornography?
  • Are you comfortable being seen reading romance novels in public?
  • Do you feel the novels objectify women/men, and, if so, does it bother you?
  • Would you rather read about a character who’s the epitome of physical perfection, or someone “normal"?
  • One of Bill’s students notes that male characters in many of the romances s/he’d read, usually have an almost animalistic sexuality, while the female characters are generally more delicate -- though the heroines are often also strong-willed and intelligent, and appealing to the male for those reasons. "Is this the usual scenario? And what does it mean to have the male played up this way?
  • Is there a difference in how women are portrayed in historical romances than, say, in novels set in the present?
  • Are there other traces of formal elements at play in [romance] novels that might give them greater literary status than the typical mass-produced, formulaic fiction?
  • What’s the appeal of romance to men?
So far there have been responses from lots of readers and authors, including (in chronological order of replies): Anna Campbell, Nikki Magennis, Diana Groe, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, Julie Elizabeth Leto, Anna Destefano, Bob Mayer, Teresa Medeiros, Lori Foster, Diane Perkins, Vivi Anna, Pamela Clare, Jessica Inclán, Cathy Maxwell, Roxanne St. Claire, Diana Peterfreund, Annette Blair, Amanda Brice, Susan Squires, Ann Christopher, Robin Schone, Kate Pearce, Eve Silver, Gemma Halliday, Janice Maynard, Wendy Wootton/Portia da Costa, Cara King, Jenna Black, Jenny Crusie, Caroline Linden, Kathleen Eagle.

Prof. Gleason last blogged at Romance: By the Blog in 2006 and you can read his post here, in which he gives a bit more detail about the content of the course he teaches.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Jenny Crusie on Community - Addendum to the PCA/ACA Conference Posts

Sarah gave a description of Jenny Crusie's paper, 'A Book Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Community in Contemporary Romance Fiction', in her summary of this part of the PCA/ACA conference, and Jenny has now posted some of her thoughts on community on the He Wrote, She Wrote blog.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

PCA/ACA Conference 2007, Part 5 and hopefully last

We'll make a sprint for the ending here and try to cover the remaining two panels and the extra little nuggets of information in one post.

Romance V: Romance & Its Neighbors (In and Out of the Canon)
Chair: Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University

Druann Bauer, Ohio Northern University: "From James Fennimore Cooper to Cassie Edwards: The Evolution of Frontier Romance"
Bauer relays that the genre of Frontier Romance was supposed to have disappeared at the end of the nineteenth century. She argues instead that it changed and evolved as it has throughout its existence and can be found in modern popular romances. The Frontier Romance began as seventeenth-century captivity narratives that established themselves as religious autobiographies, detailing the captivity of Europeans by Native Americans as a test from God. The eighteenth century saw narratives created as anti-Indian polemics which added melodrama and sensibility and soon became pure entertainment. James Fennimore Cooper was the undisputed leader in writing Frontier Romances, espousing a racist and nationalistic philosophy. His depiction of Native Americans were three-fold: they were either despicable used to show how far whites had come in choosing civilization, the Noble Savage of pre-contact days, or the Good Indian who started out as a Bad Indian and is changed and educated by whites. Captive women are always rescued by a white man and the Indian prefers white women. In the early 1980s, Janelle Taylor continued the Frontier Romance with her mass-market romances that detail an Indian captivity narrative with a twist: a white woman is captured by or meets and Indian man and they fall in love and must adjust to their cultural differences. The hero is usually the strongest and smartest of his tribe, is a sex symbol, is a peaceful, mystical, spiritual guardian of the land, but the his happiness is finally an important part of the captivity narrative. Of course, he still strangely prefers white women.

Robin Payne, University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill: "Popularizing Feminist Theories of Heterosexual Romance: Romantic Love and Feminist Identity in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying"
Payne examines the Second Wave Movement in feminism of the 1960s and 1970s and their confusion surrounding how to reconcile women's needs for both independence and gender equality, and also heterosexual love. Fear of Flying was among the ten top bestsellers of the entire decade of the 1970s, in which Jong gave readers a character to whom they could relate. Feminism had established heterosexual love as a patriarchal construct used to subjugate women. Simone de Beauvouir especially claimed that love needed to be separated from the social heirarchies that gave women power. In the Second Wave, where the personal became the political, women had to make a choice between cooperation with or separation from men. Criticisms of heterosexual love deemed it the psychological pivot in the persecution of women, an emotional manipulation that wasn't real. Jong's novel, on the other hand, emphasized the complexity of the debates and became a popular feminist narrative that was both adored and reviled by self-proclaimed feminists of the time, demonstrating that sexuality was a site both and liberation for women.

Grace Sikorski, Anne Arundel Community College: "Revising the Family Romance: Toward a Bisexual Perversity in Narratives of Desire"
Sikorski's paper is another one that I will do little justice to, for which I apologize. It was a fascinating paper and part of a larger project detailing bisexuality in literature, but my knowledge of Freudian analysis is minimal at best, so I'm going to miss some references and argument points. She (or it has been) argues that Freud's Dora is the first representation of bisexual development, although Freud argued that bisexuality is unresolved erotic hysteria and a refusal to commit to binary reality of hetero- vs. homosexuality. Both the marriage plot and coming-out stories deny the existence or legitimacy of bisexuality, and bisexual characters in stories by men usually die while those written by women usually come through bisexuality to their "real" lesbianism. This indicates a trajectory in which the desiring subject evolved linearly, eschewing one side of the other, but never picking both, a monosexual epistemology. A bisexual romance, on the other hand, problematizes readers' expectations for the plot and demonstrates that desire is not just about the object of desire and his/her fiddly bits (my phrase), but about moments of desire.

Robert Waxler, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth: "Literary and Popular Erotic Romance"
While only the first paper of this panel was directly related to mass-market romance novels, it was Dr. Waxler who seemed most out of place on the panel. He had suggested to Eric Selinger a paper that discussed the short erotic romance, like those of Joyce Carol Oates, as a literary genre. These are stories about sexual difference that are pessimistic in nature and seem unable to link abstract desire with reality in compatible ways. Eric, apparently, suggested that he examine instead the "short, erotic romances" of Emma Holly, Thea Devine, Robin Schone, and Lori Foster. Which, very much to his credit, Waxler did. And he claims he enjoyed them. For the paper, then, Waxler examined Oates' "Where are you going? Where have you been?" in comparison to Lori Foster's "Luscious" in one of the Bad Boys anthologies. Oates' characters confuse death with erotic romance and desire the fantasy of each other but actual sex provokes violence, not love. Neither of the main characters can become whole because of the inevitable exteriorization of human desire. Foster's story, on the other hand, details a significantly different erotic progress that grants the characters and the readers a fullness without any sense of loss. Both characters already have what it takes to be fully realized as desiring subjects, but then complete each other when they come together.

During the Q&A after the panel, Eric challenged Bob Waxler that examine mass-market romances as using "eros," the desire for what one lacks that, when satisfied, is lost, but twisting it to rewrite the loss and questioned whether the concept of "literary" and "popular" is just a difference in philosophical understanding of love. Jenny Crusie argued that literary romances are haunted by mortality, arguing that misery is the natural human condition, while popular romances argue instead that happiness is the natural human condition. Many suggestions were made to panelists about more books that might be helpful to their subjects and a lively discussion was had by all.

The last official romance panel was:
Romance VI: Romance Authors Special Session
Chairs: Eric Selinger, Depaul University, and Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University

This panel apparently began to be formed when Jenny Crusie sent Eric a late email, asking if she could present at the conference with her "academic" hat on. Eric said yes (of course!), but suggested a separate panel that would bring together ideas about popular romance from within the writers' community. As a result, the presenters on the panel were Jenny Crusie, Mary Bly (a Shakespeare scholar from Fordham who moonlights as Eloisa James), with Suzanne Brockmann as respondant.

Jenny Crusie Smith: "A Book Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Community in Contemporary Romance Fiction."
Crusie began by claiming she could analyze popular romance more accurately from the outside than since she became an author because she had an objective distance and a grasp of the overall field, rather than a focus on and understanding of what sold well at Wal*Mart. However, she still wanted to know why readers like community so much in their romance novels, to the extent that they'll go back again and again to books with a strong sense of community. She establishes community in her own novels by building a world for her heroine that seems to organically populate itself with too many people. These books, then, are used by people to establish their own, online communities with very little help or hindrance by Crusie herself. Community on the 'net seems to correlate to the very natural need for community in real life. Crusie mentioned two theorists, both of whose names I didn't catch, so you'll have to wait for her to post the paper to her web page (which she has promised to do) in order to get them--sorry! One of the names was a theorist of social psychology who theorized that a psychological sense of community gives those in the community four things: membership, influence, needs fulfillment, and emotional connection. Membership allows readers to feel like a part of the community with a common emotional language when reading a book. Needs fulfillment gives reader shared values. Influence allows reader to "co-write" the book with the author in the "white spaces" around the edge of the story in which the writer hasn't filled all the details. Emotional connection allows the reader to get along with the hero and heroine, allows the reader to support the h/h beyond the end of the book. In the end, a good love story doesn't have to be only about romantic love--it's about the various communities established in the course of writing and reading a book.

Mary Bly (Eloisa James): "Hostile but Useful: Adorno, Pop Music, and Popular Romance."
Bly uses Theodor Adorno's theories about mass culture to rethink our relation to mass-market popular romance novels. Adorno is well-known for his vehement dislike of pop music, claiming that the fundamental structure of popular music is standardization, the result of the lamentable influence of industrialization. He argued that a "hit song" will always lead back to the same feeling or response each time it's played, with no uniqueness with a veneer of individual effects that confuse the listener/reader into thinking that they're listening/reading individual texts, when in fact all hit songs are really the same and none of them have any layers.

Bly then switched tactics and focused on romance criticism, which has historically denigrated the romance based on the intellect, class, and education level of both readers and writers. In "the best academic smack-down" that Jenny Crusie had ever seen, Bly put to rest that criticism of the romance, arguing that romance readers and writers are, for the most part, smart, college educated, and generally the same class and gender as most romance critics. Commodification of the romance, the continued belief in a standard "formula," is the hinge that inspires the most scorn, just as it did for Adorno and popular music.

Bly then switched hats again and discussed Shakespeare's "uniqueness" as a product of his ability to take someone else's story (all but five of his plays were "plagiarized") and make it uniquely his, uniquely beautiful. Shakespeare uses genre (history, tragedy, this particular story) as the opportunity for inventiveness, not structural stagnation as critics would argue in romances and pop music. Shakespeare's "originality" is always laid on the brilliance of others and always played out in genre. He took the structure of someone else's plays and stories and make them deeply original but stuck to the structure of the original. Critics have to get away from the idea that sticking to structure (genre) is a bad thing. In fact, for popular genres, standardization of the whole is crucial. Moments of wild originality within the generic structure is the definition of a brilliant romance. The romance writer's job is fifty times harder than that of a literary fiction writer precisely because of the need to produce strong emotion in the reader within a preset structure. Literary fiction authors have nothing to fight against, no expectations to break or meet.

A comic that I originally encountered in the comments section of a post on Smart Bitches seems to sum this all up beautifully:

Special Author Discussant: Suzanne Brockman
Brockmann claimed that Adorno would really have hated her because she vividly remembers the first time she heard rock music (The Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand") and how much it changed her life. All the epiphanies in her life have come through popular culture.

A point was made during the Q&A series that romance affirms women's desire and that is a frightening thought for modern culture. Eric Selinger asked the panel what romance needs from academic critics. Crusie said anything that's fair, anything that doesn't start with romance as porn or trash and that doesn't look at romance fiction from literary fiction standards. Mary Bly asked us to stop footnoting Radway and to perform narrower studies of individual novels because they can be much more accurate.

There were also some papers about romance, or partly about romance, which were presented at other sessions:

Kristin Ramsdell, California State University, East Bay, and Doug Highsmith, California State University, East Bay: "Putting Romance into the Library: Building a Collection of Genre Romance Literature in an Academic Library"
Doug Highsmith was actually unable to make the conference, but Kristin Ramsdell related the results of a survey sent to the RomanceScholar listserv and around the internet about what romance critics are looking for in a complete romance collection at a library. The results were interesting, but not particularly unexpected: we'd like more secondary criticism, we'd prefer a library to go deep into one sub-genre or area of romance than try to spot-check everything, and libraries shouldn't forget about access to web resources.

Kathryn Swanson, Augsburg College: "Sizzling Romance and Nail-Biting Suspense: Really Not Such Strange Bedfellows!"
Unfortunately, no one I know attended Swanson's paper, which is not to say that it wasn't brilliant, of course, but I can't report on it. If anyone would like to fill in the blanks, I would appreciate it.

Monday, April 09, 2007

PCA/ACA Conference 2007, Part4

Forging ever onward...

Romance IV: New Approaches, Enduring Debates
Chair: Eric Selinger, DePaul University

An Goris, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium): "And They Wrote Happily Ever After . . . Normative Narratology"
Goris (my roommate at the conference, and a lovely roommate, too!) related the results of her undergraduate thesis. She examined six "How to Write a Romance" handbooks, all published between 1997-2004. Most of the handbooks talked about writing category romances, rather than mainstream single titles. There were superficial differences in scope and presentation of the handbooks, but overall similarities in discussions of the romance narrative. They examined the strong generic narrative frame that fulfills the functions of escape and relaxation that so many readers say are why they read romances. Goris discovered, however, that each handbook revealed that a strong generic framework is not enough (apparently the handbooks explicitly refuse the word "formula" and prefer the word "recipe"). Each handbook discussed the need for originality, creativity, novelty, and idiosyncracy in writing romances. The handbooks name this the author's "voice" that turns the "recipe" of the romance into a unique product.

Voice is important yet elusive to define. Some handbooks define it as the handling of the story idea, some define it as style, some as the connection between the reader and the writer. But all agree that it's what makes the writing unique and personal. The emphasis on voice is part of the generic discourse of the handbooks and Goris argues that voice is most important for genres with a strong generic framework like romance. Goris argues that the high cultural "artistic" values that society valorizes (originality, creativity, novelty, etc.) are important to the aesthetic framework of romance novels and that traditional analysis of the genre underestimates the complexity of the genre.

Linda Lee, University of Pennsylvania: "Alternate Genealogy: Reconsidering Romance Novels as Postmodern Fairy Tales"
Lee is a folklorist, and while Eric Selinger had to give a presentation about Crusie's novel with Crusie in the audience, Lee disagreed with one of Crusie's articles that discusses the genres' use of fairy tales. That took guts and she did a good job! Jenny agrees.

Lee discussed how romances utilize fairy tale conventions and explained how fairy tales and romances are similar to each other in that they target adult audiences and address adult concerns, much as critics might think differently about both. Lee argues that romance scholars, so far, haven't had enough training as folklorists to analyze the fairy tale/romance combination. In fact, as long as you look past Grimms', fairy tales have always had strong female protagonists and that romances reflect this as female quest books. Lee especially examined Beauty and the Beast tales, in which the change in the "beast" figure of the hero is usually metaphorical. Paranormal novels, especially, usually have a Beauty and the Beast structure, in which the hero is changed by love and can take his rightful place in society after being accepted by the heroine.

I know I'm doing the least justice to Lee's paper because, as she rightly says, I'm not a trained folklorist, so I know very little of the theory she's discussing and found it difficult to take notes as a result. I apologize and maybe she can correct me.

Glen Thomas, Queensland University of Technology: "Romance: The Perfect Creative Industry"
Thomas is also not a literary critic. I'm not quite sure what exactly he is and/or does, except that it sounded very Australian and that he was incredibly cool and fun to be around. He's also the designated Organizer for the First Annual International Conference on Popular Romance, which will take place in Australia in August 2009. You go, Glen!

Thomas discussed romance as an industry, rather than as literary practice. He examines the way in which romances are produced, published, marketed, and consumed. First, he discussed the stereotypes of the industry of romance: romance writing is easy work, romance publishers will publish almost anything, and romance readers are idiots. To counter these stereotypes, he employed a theory about the "citizen reader," in which consumers are empowered and make their own decisions in which consumption is action rather than behavior. Thomas spent some time discussing previous romance criticism as behavioralist approaches to romances. Radway argues that reading is a psychological process that leads to addiction that readers can't kick, whereas Modleski argued that reading is a revenge fantasy for women, establishing a practice of pretense and hypocrisy in readers in ways I don't remember. Both of these arguments establish reading romance as a manifestation of internal psychological conflict where female readers are imprisoned in a false consciousness. Thomas then demonstrated how most defense of the romance performs a similar function by analyzing romance reading from a behavioralist approach where tired, worn, frazzled readers come to romance for release and escape. Both approaches argue that there's something wrong with romance readers. However, Thomas argues that production and consumption of romance is a bottom-up model where publishers and writers respond to the wants and desires of readers with a speed not replicated in other publishing fields. Rather than having something wrong with them, romance readers produce exactly the romances they want to read and reading and writing are inter-related products. Thomas argues that critics need to analyze romances from an action-oriented, consumer-driven perspective, rather than from a behavioralist perspective.

Glen's paper was incredibly powerful, in my opinion, and demonstrated to me the reason I'm always vaguely uncomfortable with much of the pro-romance criticism that claims that romances help rather than hurt the poor, down-trodden readers that come to it. Glen showed me more strongly than anything else that romance criticism needs to get away from that form of analysis (good vs. bad; empowerment vs. oppression) and analyze romances using completely different theories, whatever that theory might turn out to be.

Unfortunately, Michelle Buonfiglio, columnist and owner of "Read Romance: B(u)y the Book" could not make it to the conference as originally planned. But that gave us the opportunity to add a panelist who had had travel difficulties (getting stuck in Kansas because of weather in Chicago--go figure) and hadn't been able to make an earlier panel:

Amber Botts: Neodesha High School: "Love’s Bitch: Paranormal Romance Writers’ Love Affair with Joss Whedon"
Botts argues that those of us with gaping voids in our lives left by the end of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer can fill our sad, empty lives with paranormal romances that utilize many of Whedon's tropes. Primarily, Whedon mainstreamed a cool new job market in Slayage, demonstrating that a female character can be a superhero all on her own. Whedon also mainstreamed the use of a hero (Angel) with a history of being cruel and committing atrocities, but who is now actively trying to seek redemption for his literal crimes, showing that audiences will embrace truly dark heroes. Botts discovered two types of use of Whedon's show: the first amounts to shout-outs in the paranormal novels that demonstrate to the readers of the particular paranormal that she and the reader "share" a show that they both love. The second type wants to play with Whedon's toys and "fix" problems from the show. Spike is the toy most authors wanted to play with the most, with his smart mouth and romantic vulnerability. Unlike Angel, he is not tortured, but rather embraces his vampirism and sees no need to be human again. Paranormal authors seem to have an impulse to want to give Spike his happy ending. The show was entertaining and well-written with a strong romance strain from the beginning. The depth of the show is encouraging to other authors, showing that audience look for thought-provoking, philosophical debates with their vampires, as well as pure entertainment.

Altogether, this was a wonderful panel. So many amazing ideas, with such detailed, layered analyses. It's so inspiring to see this level of analysis happening for romances.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

PCA/ACA Conference 2007, Part 3

Romance III: Genres & Forms
Chair: Eric Selinger, DePaul University

Lesa Smith, Wilfrid Laurier University: "Emailing Romance: Epistolary Form in the Modern Romance Novel"
Smith examined the conventions used in Meg Cabot's The Boy Next Door, a novel told entirely in emails and attachments, against the epistolary conventions used in Fanny Burney's Evelina. It has been theorized that in the eighteenth century, women used letter writing not only to express themselves, but to rewrite themselves. While the letters in Evelina were a physical connection between sender and addressee, emails in The Boy Next Door has no corporeality. An email exchange also has an illusion of "real-time" communication with rapid-fire response and were sometimes very short. Unlike Evelina, there is very little dialogue in Cabot's book and very little narrative mood-setting. Instead, Cabot's book uses emoticons, caps, and the subject line to indicate the characters' moods. Even the email addresses forward plot and character in ways that the stylized greetings and sign-offs in Evelina can. In Evelina, direct male speech is given at least one remove and the female voice is dominant over the male. This is repeated in Cabot's novel to some extent in interesting ways. While Cabot's novel is only one in a sea of published novels, it might indicate a new wave of the epistolary form, or at least of the applicability of the epistolary form in this electronic age.

Jessica Lyn Van Slooten, Michigan State University: "A Marriage Made in the Kitchen: Amanda Hesser’s Blend of Chick Lit and Food Memoir in Cooking for Mr. Latte"
Van Slooten details Hesser's creation of a "foodie romance" that in the combination of two separate genres (foodie memoirs and chick lit), questions the idea of pleasure and consumption and broadens the definition of both genres. The book itself becomes a hybrid object of consumption. Like Fielding's Bridget Jones' Diary, Hessen's Cooking for Mr. Latte started as a newspaper column, although it is, apparently, mostly a non-fictional memoir. The novel appeals to chick lit readers and has a typical romance-plot happy ending, but it also organizes each chapter around a recipe that has connection to the plot, as in a food memoir. Many readers and reviewers were frustrated by the hybrid genre of the book. It was dismissed as superficial by food critics because of the chick lit quality, and confused the chick lit reviewers with the inclusion of recipes. A reviewer from Gastronimica said that the book puts the focus back on the intimacy and relationships that come from sharing food. In marrying the genres, Hessen brings up a whole new range of questions to apply to each genre, most particularly that food is not the enemy in the foodie genre, unlike in chick lit, and food represention becomes a form of escapism for the reader.

Eric Selinger, Depaul University: "Brace Yourself, Brigid O'Shaughnessy: Jennifer Crusie Romances The Maltese Falcon"
When Eric's panel started, I remembered that he didn't know if Jenny Crusie would be there for his paper. So I looked around the room and there she was, at the back! I have to say that I'm glad Suz Brockmann or J.R. Ward weren't there for MY paper!

Twenty-five years ago, detective fiction, even of the hard-boiled variety, was the subject of respectful, theoretical literary criticism. Romance criticism, on the other hand, examined by Radway and Modleski, examined the "formula" and the readers and didn't attend to the artistry of the genre. Recently critics have begun to examine romance novels individually, and we're beginning to examine them as romances consciously constructed as meta-romances or meta-narratives. Eric examined Crusie's category romance What the Lady Wants and her single-title Fast Women as conscious rewrites of Dashiel Hammett's The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon.

Hammett apparently thought that someday someone would make "literature" out of pulp detective fiction, and indeed critics did, demonstrating what modernism looked like to mass culture.

In Crusie's novels, the male private investigators are in the business of "relationship investigation" and "play the sap" for the heroines, unlike Hammett's male characters who are kept away from emotional interaction with the female characters and from readers with a strictly controlled third person narrator perspective. In fact, Crusie shows that "playing the sap" for a woman is a positive good because you're leaving yourself open to emotional involvement. Crusie's novels rewrite the morally just universe of detective fiction as the ethically just universe of romance and demonstrates how that's better for the characters. She brings the relationship that are ignored by Hammett to the front and center of the novels and demonstrates that the big mystery of her novels IS all about relationships. Finally, Hammett achieves ambiguity through reticence, while Crusie achieves it through multiplicity and hetero-dialogics (not sure how that last point connects to the rest of the argument, but it's in my notes and sounds good!).

As soon as he was done, Eric looked back and asked Jenny how he'd done. She said that she loves discovering stuff that she didn't know was in her own fiction and that she had learned a lot. A questioner asked about category romances, asking whether a truly emotionally just universe would really have the heroine giving up something, usually a career, paying a price to achieve her happy ending. I pointed out that the heroines of most of the romances I read don't pay a price, that they demonstrate instead that relationships require sacrifice for both characters. Jenny reiterated that emotional justice can only come through sacrifice.

The papers worked brilliantly together, I thought, demonstrating that when genres are melded, rather than closing off questions and making the novels smaller and less interesting, the questions about both genres explode. It was a fascinating panel and a lot of fun having an author as well as critics in the room.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

PCA/ACA Conference 2007 - cont.

Jenny Crusie's written up a summary of the second half of the romance-related panels at this conference. Apparently I'm 'mysterious'. Really, there's nothing mysterious about staying at home and writing blog posts, but in an attempt to add glamour and mystique to my image, I'm borrowing this photo. Sarah is getting an ARC of Agnes and the Hitman, and Jenny says that Eric 'was dead on target in everything he said' about her novels.

Here's the list of the romance genre sessions from the second half of the conference, as listed on the PCA website:

Romance III: Genres & Forms
Chair: Eric Selinger, DePaul University

Emailing Romance: Epistolary Form in the Modern Romance Novel
Lesa Smith, Wilfrid Laurier University

A Marriage Made in the Kitchen: Amanda Hesser’s Blend of Chick Lit and Food Memoir in Cooking for Mr. Latte
Jessica L. Van Slooten, Michigan State University

Love’s Bitch: Paranormal Romance Writers’ Love Affair with Joss Whedon
Amber Botts, Neodesha High School

Brace Yourself, Brigid O'Shaughnessy: Jennifer Crusie Romances The Maltese Falcon
Eric Selinger

Romance IV: New Approaches, Enduring Debates
Chair: Eric Selinger, DePaul University

And They Wrote Happily Ever After . . . Normative Narratology

An Goris, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium)

An Alternate Genealogy: Reconsidering Romance Novels as Postmodern Fairy Tales
Linda Lee, University of Pennsylvania

Romance: The Perfect Creative Industry
Glen Thomas, Queensland University of Technology

The Power of the Medium

Michelle Buonfiglio, Columnist, Read Romance: B(u)y the Book

Romance V: Romance & Its Neighbors (In & Out of the Canon)
Chair: Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University

From James Fennimore Cooper to Cassie Edwards: The Evolution of Frontier Romance
Druann Bauer, Ohio Northern University

Popularizing Feminist Theories of Heterosexual Romance: Romantic Love and Feminist Identity in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying
Robin Payne, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

Revising the Family Romance: Toward a Bisexual Perversity in Narratives of Desire
Grace Sikorski, Anne Arundel Community College

Literary and Popular Erotic Romance
Robert Waxler, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth

Romance VI: Romance Authors Special Session
Chairs: Eric Selinger, Depaul University, and Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University

This special session, comprised of 4 award-winning, best-selling authors in the Romance genre, includes both presentations and roundtable discussion formats. The conversation should be lively, and the PCA/ACA is honored to have these authors participate in the conference.

Special Presenters:

Jenny Crusie Smith, A Book Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Community in Contemporary Romance Fiction.

Mary Bly (Eloisa James), Hostile but Useful: Adorno, Pop Music, and Popular Romance.

Special Author Discussants: Suzanne Brockman & Anne Stuart

There were also some papers about romance, or partly about romance, which were presented at other sessions:

Libraries, Archives, & Popular Culture Research IV: Ephemeral Images, Organizing Love, & the Representative Dynamics of Compressed Coinage
Chair: Allen Ellis, Northern Kentucky University

Putting Romance into the Library: Building a Collection of Genre Romance Literature in an Academic Library
Kristin Ramsdell, California State University, East Bay, and Doug Highsmith, California State University, East Bay

Mystery/Detective Fiction VIII: Cross-Genre Fiction
Chair: Kathryn Swanson, Augsburg College

Sizzling Romance and Nail-Biting Suspense: Really Not Such Strange Bedfellows!
Kathryn Swanson

[And the photo is from Wikipedia, and is of 'La Belle Otero'. About the only things we have in common are being female, and having curly hair and Spanish surnames.]

Thursday, April 05, 2007

PCA/ACA Conference 2007

I am currently attending the Annual Conference for the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association in Boston, MA. Eric Selinger and Darcy Martin, Area Co-Chairs for Romance, have put together some fine panels on popular romance novels, and I thought I'd post summaries of the panels and the papers and even the discussions during the Q&A sessions.

I apologize to the presenters for simplifying their arguments. I take notes very well, but they're still notes and obviously can't do justice to the full scope of the presentation, which probably can't do justice to the full scope of what is probably a larger project anyway. But I'll try, and I'll also comment on how the papers talked to and with each other.

In fact, there's only one more Romance panel left. It's a special session tomorrow, Friday, April 5, 2007, 12:30-2:00pm. Authors Jennifer Crusie and Mary Bly/Eloisa James will be presenting, and then Suzanne Brockmann and Anne Stuart will respond and hold a roundtable session that should be a lot of fun and is being much anticipated by those of us here.

Of the five Romance panels that have taken place, I attended four. I missed the first one for embarrassing reasons (I was finishing up my own paper for the second session), so I'll just post names and titles and maybe someone who went can fill in details in the comments:

Romance II: Regional and Global Perspectives
Chair: Emily Haddad, University of South Dakota

Christine Bolus-Reichert, University of Toronto: "The Descent of Romance: Madeleine Brent, Modesty Blaise, and the Imperialist Adventure"
Apparently, if I'd been there, I would have been the only person in the audience to have read Madeleine Brent's novels, for which I can thank my mother! I'm very sorry I wasn't there, because I love Brent's stories. I imagine Christine wishes I'd been there as well. Christine very graciously gave me a copy of the paper, which I will read and comment on later.

Glinda Hall, Arkansas State University: "Inverting the Southern Belle"
ETA: Glinda explained her paper to me over drinks, so let's see if I get it right. She said that she examined three (cut down to one) books that used New Orleans as a setting. And while people in the South say that New Orleans is "different," where everyone gets wild and crazy, Hall's argument is that New Orleans is actually where everyone's motivations and real feelings actually come out instead of being repressed. So it's only different in that people are expressing all that they've repressed, rather than acting completely out of character.

Emily Haddad, University of South Dakota: "Postmodern Victorianism and the Romance of India"

The second session of Thursday was the session I was in (I had finished my paper by then!). Unintuitively, it was called Romance I because our time was switched with Romance II to accomodate travel schedules of presenters.

Romance I: Heroes and Heroines
Chair: Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University

Julie Taddeo, University of Maryland, College Park: "Searching for Romantic Heroes in Catherine Cookson Country
Taddeo discussed Catherine Cookson, a best-selling English author of over one hundred novels published between 1950-1998. Cookson's historical novels recreates a "lost" British way of life, and her readers insist that the appeal of her novels is not the romance, but the struggles and troubles the characters go through. Taddeo discussed in particular Cookson's construction of her male characters, especially the physically and emotionally crippled men who populate Cookson's novels. Cookson's women usually marry up, but they marry a man who has physical or emotional scars that equalize the relationship. Women also rescue their men from domineering first wives or shrewish mothers. Cookson was apparently troubled by the sexual revolution, but her depictions of troubled masculinity appeals to her readers because of their moments of gender subversiveness in which it is the man who needs to be mothered and saved.

I know I'm not doing justice to Taddeo's consideration of Cookson, but I thought she had some fascinating points about an author with such a long-lived publishing career and how her readers focus is NOT on the romance so much as the barriers to romance.

Kerry Sutherland, Kent State University: "Marital Rape as a Plot Device in Catherine Coulter's Historical Romances: Appropriate or Appalling?"
Sutherland's discussion of Catherine Coulter's historical romances centered around the vexed question of marital rape. Historically, rape in marriage was a legal impossibility and Coulter defends her use of marital rape as necessary to maintain historical accuracy in her novels. Sutherland, however, is deeply troubled by the fact that the rapist husband is redeemed not through a change of heart and much groveling before the heroine, but through the heroine excusing and rationalizing her husband's behavior and accepting all the blame. Sutherland questions whether female readers accept the rape: Are events acceptable because the reader is in control fo the fictional experience? Is it that husband rapists in Coulter's novels do not act as real-life husband rapists do and act on overwhelming passion, rather than through violence? Pamela Regis claims that rape in romances needs to be seen in the context of its setting, but Sutherland questions whether the heroine and/or the reader are empowered by converting the man who rapes her or does it just devalue the heroine and therefore the reader?

This discussion is, of course, very topical at the moment, with discussion at Dear Author and Romance B(u)y the Blog and Smart Bitches about rape and sexuality in general in romances.

Sarah S. G. Frantz, Fayetteville State University: "Sobbing SEALs, Frantic Football Players, and Weeping Vampires: The Rise of the Emotional Masculine Perspective in Romance Novels"
I discussed the spectacle of tears shed by hyper-masculine romance heroes, especially in Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Chicago Stars books, Suzanne Brockmann's Navy SEAL Troubleshooter books, and J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood vampire series. I demonstrated how the most important structural change in romance over the last twenty years is the inclusion of the hero's perspective, and how that focus on masculine emotional expression yields an increasing need for greater displays of feeling. Phillips' heroes cry to demonstrate to their heroines that they truly love them and it seems to be the only way in which the heroines can believe the heroes. J.R. Ward takes this a step further and directly ties her heroes' tears to their specific emotional barrier to a relationship with the heroine. The key to the entire character of Brockmann's Navy SEAL Sam Starrett is his relationship to his own tears and how they define what kind of man he is. For these alpha males, then, tears demonstrate the barriers through which they must break to fall in love with and admit their love to their heroines, but the way in which their tears are constructed allows them to enhance rather than threaten their alpha masculinity.

Darcy Martin, East Tennessee State University: "Exploding the Stereotype: The Heroine as Portrayed in the Silhouette Bombshell Series
Martin discusses the heroine of the now-defunct Silhouette Bombshell line and how different she is from the "normal" heroine of category romances. The 124 books of the Bombshell line, published between 2004-2007 have heroines who are older, experienced, both professionally and sexually, not virginal, and how engage in high-risk professions. Martin focused specifically on the six original novels of the Athena Force series, in which the heroines emphasize their bonds of sisterhood (of choice, not blood). They are strong, loyal, intelligent characaters who fight and love hard and who never back down. In fact, some of the Bombshell books, with their "happy for now" endings, might not even be considered "true" romance novels. Martin's final point was the the Bombshell authors took risks with both their storylines and their heroines, especially.

The panel really worked well together, analyzing the construction of the heroes and heroines of these very different books in ways that worked together in interesting and exciting forms. The questions focused on ways in which to reconcile the marital rapes to the reader, and Eric Selinger suggested the idea of fantasies of resiliance for female readers, and then brought up Emma Holly's novel Hunting Midnight, in which violence is played out as sexual fantasy, but not as a "reality" that it seems to be in Coulter's novels.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Elizabeth Thornton - Fallen Angel

In my last post I mentioned the discussion going on at Dear Author about the difference between rape and forced seduction, and so I thought I'd turn to a novel which raises these issues. The hero of Elizabeth Thornton's Fallen Angel, Jason Verney, Viscount Deveryn sexually assaults the heroine, Maddie Sinclair.

The novel was first published in 1989, but was reissued by Zebra in 2004. There's a review by Marilyn at Regency Romance Writers, in which Marilyn tells us that
Oftentimes, it is hard to be objective, particularly when the hero in a novel is such a possessive, arrogant ‘brat’! [...] If it were not for the fact that Jason truly was in love with Maddy you would really despise his arrogant possessiveness that bordered on cruelty. Maddy on the other hand, waffled from sensual passion to guilt over the betrayal she thought she was doing to her father’s memory so that Jason never quite knew where he stood. Suffice it to say, the relationship was complex and the reader will be thoroughly immersed in this stormy battle of the sexes as love will overcome all obstacles [...] it is also quite a sensual read though not for the timid who may be shocked by scenes that could be construed as rape.
It's worth noting that the responses at Amazon were mixed. One reviewer felt that
The plot was good and technically it was well written, but I could not stand the characters. The book was first published in 1989 and I guess "acceptable behavior" for a romance novel character has changed greatly over the last 15+ years.

For example, the hero Deveryn practically rapes Maddie, the heroine, early in the book and then blames the poor girl for his loss of control. She made him "angry." Ha.

I found Deveryn's character to be cruel and gratingly chauvinistic.
However, another reviewer
found this book to be terribly sexy. It had a lot of the elements that erotic romance novel authors are using so well in their novels. Emma Holly's historicals are similar with more explicit sex scenes. This book was a total fantasy and the alpha male hero was a womanizing, unapologetic jerk, but I still found this to be exciting. The fantasy of having a man want you so powerfully that he can't help himself is very thrilling to some women. Winning a man over stiff competition like the heroine's stepmama is also an exciting fantasy to some women.
As Robin commented over at Dear Author,
the key to enjoying forced seduction and rape in Romance as a fantasy lies completely in the idea that either the heroine OR the reader consents to the act. There is a point beyond which only the reader meaningfully or consciously consents, which is what makes it a fantasy for the reader to enjoy, even as the heroine might not.
and she clarifies still further that romance novels that include forced seductions/rape of the heroine by the hero do not justify real-life rape, but rather are about
a *fantasy* pure and simple, and detached from anything we would call rape or sexual force or assault in real life. In Romance, either the heroine or the reader consents, and in that consent creates the fantasy construct as acceptable to that particular reader.
Here are some extracts from the passage in which Maddie has her first experience of sexual intercourse. Jason is jealous, thinking that Maddie has made an assignation with another man:
With a vicious jerk, he swung her round and pinned her against the door. Though she tried to shrink from the crush of his body as it pressed relentlessly against hers, her spine flattening against the hard, unyielding surface of the door, he would not permit it. His hand caught her hip, dragging her close to the lower half of his body, forcing her to accept the heat of his muscled thighs pressed intimately against hers.
There was never any doubt in her mind that his motive was punitive. There was nothing of the tender lover who had seduced her to willingness in the darkened nave of the church. His lips burned, his hands bruised, and he used his body like a weapon to subdue her. (2004: 124-125)
After a while he begins to seduce her instead of using so much force and 'Instinctively, she reached for Deveryn, seeking a more intimate joining' (2004: 127) but then
"Love," he said softly, "forgive me. This will hurt. But only the first time. I'll never hurt you again. I swear it."
The reassuring words were at first unintelligible to Maddie. A moment later, she grasped the full import of their significance. There had never been any doubt in his mind of her innocence. He had used her friendship with Malcolm as a convenient excuse to wreak his will on her. (2004: 128)
Furious, Maddie lies and tells him that
"You're not the first, I thought you knew."
He closed his eyes. Instinctively, she shrank from the violence she could sense as the hard muscles of his body tensed. The explosion was not long in coming. His mouth curled in a cruel line, and with a feral snarl, he ripped through the delicate membrane, sheathing himself fully.
Maddie screamed as that rending pain sliced through her. Though she had achieved her object, though she had punished her willful body and cured it of its sensual addiction, the price was more than she had counted on. [...] She was too spent from everything that had gone before to offer more than a passive resistance. But it was effective. She was deaf to his pleas, immune to the voluptuous caress of his hands, and finally unmoved by his bitter frustration. As he moved upon her, trying to draw a response from her unwilling body, her eyes closed. She concentrated on the pain of the violation she had been forced to endure. It was an effective antidote to passion.
When it was over, he left her abruptly and stalked to the fire. (2004: 128-129)
His first words to her, immediately after this, are ones in which he blames her for what has occurred:
"How could you do this to me?" [...] He repeated his question, but this time, there was no mistaking the hard anger in his voice.
He had frightened her half to death, forced her against her will, and now had the temerity to put her in the wrong. "I think" she retorted, "you have taken the words out of my mouth. I'm not the one who has anything to apologize for."
"You wanted me to hurt you!"
It was true, of course. She had known when she had uttered those taunting words that he would not be gentle. (2004: 129)
It is undeniable that Jason begins by sexually assaulting Maddie: the words 'he used his body like a weapon to subdue her' are a very clear indication of that. But when this almost-30-year-old, sexually experienced man then begins to seduce a 19-year-old virgin and she taunts him, frightened by her own sexual feelings and furious at what he's done to her so far, the blame for what happens next is somehow placed on Maddie, both by Jason and, implicitly, by Thornton.* Both seem to conclude that Maddie's pain is caused by her decision to reject Jason's seductions and tell him a lie. I, however, read this passage as being about Maddie being assaulted and raped. Maddie's realisation that she can feel pleasure, her horrified response to this, and the way he's treated her, make her tell a lie. It is known that during rape
Some women may experience lubrication, arousal, and/or orgasm. This may be confusing and disturbing for the survivor, but in no way means the survivor consented to or enjoyed the assault. (Syracuse R.A.P.E. Center)
Under no real-life circumstances could a lie such as Maddie's be construed as a 'provocation' and sufficient justification for rape. Furthermore, given that Maddie knows that Jason will not let her go without taking her virginity, the only way she can keep some control is by denying him the triumph of making her feel pleasure. Her lie does not change the outcome (Jason would not have stopped) but it makes it more painful for her, and, as a result, Jason cannot deny that he has hurt her. Thinking back on the incident, however, Jason resolutely rejects the term 'rape'. A few days later, after he's set in motion plans to marry Maddie (without her knowledge, since she, at this point, is refusing to do so), he feels 'the first genuine easing of the remorse that had laid him by the heels since the night he had taken Maddie's innocence. The word rape flashed into his mind. He vigorously suppressed it, substituting the far more tolerable seduction' (2004: 165, emphasis in the original text).

Some time later, after they've been separated for a month, he enters her room and begins to remove his clothes but Maddie
wasn't about to forget all the man's iniquities in spite of the messages her traitorous body was trying to feed her.
"You've got the wrong room [...]."
Her angry tirade broke off abruptly as he reached her in one lithe stride. Strong fingers encircled her throat, squeezing gently.
"You're my wife."
His eyes held hers. She could hear the frightened rush of air from her lungs as her breathing became more difficult. His eyes dropped to her parted lips. She tried to close them, but breathing became intolerable. [...] A cry tore from her lips the second before his mouth covered hers.
His kiss was smothering, cutting off air till she thought her lungs would burst. (2004:250)
I find it difficult to read this as anything other than an example of domestic violence, though I suppose that readers who treat this as fantasy may reach a different conclusion.

Jason is convinced that Maddie should be grateful for his attentions, and he never wavers from this opinion: 'There were dozens of women he could name who would give their eye teeth to be in her position. [...] The word "love" he discarded as far too common-place to describe their condition. This was Fate [...] Maddie was too ignorant to recognize it for what it was' (2004: 241). Somehow, being assaulted, choked and sexually aroused will ensure that Maddie recognises her Fate. Even moments after his rather limited apology for his behaviour: 'I know I've been an abominable husband!' ( 2004: 377) he is still acting violently: 'He had taken her by the shoulders and administered a rough shake as if to bring her to her senses. Maddie was too happy to make the least objection to this lover-like sign of his devotion' (2004: 377-78). If male love is expressed through bullying and the use of physical force, it's not surprising that Maddie should muse, 'I don't think, deep down, I like men very much. But then, as I've said before, liking and love are two different entities' (2004: 362).

It is, however, a positive conclusion if compared to the infanticide and murder which marked the married life of Medea, whose 'famous speech from Euripides's Medea' (2004: 8), which 'begins "Of all things that live and have intelligence, we women are the most wretched species"' (2004: 8), Maddie has been translating on the morning of the day on which the novel opens. [The quotation begins at the bracketed line 230 in this version of the text, and analysis of the speech may be found here.] The foreshadowing is rather clear, as Maddie (whose name recalls that of Medea) will become the ill-treated wife of another Jason.**
Euripides was revolutionary in his retelling of Medea's myth because he was the first one to show that she hadn't killed her children because she was crazy or a barbarian, but because she was extremely distressed and furious at Jason for leaving her to marry a princess. Fueled by a need for revenge, she sends Glauce a poisoned dress and crown that burn her to death. Creon tries to save her by tearing the dress away, but fails, burning alongside his daughter in the process. Medea then kills her two sons, Mermeros and Pheres, knowing it is the best way to hurt Jason. (Wikipedia)
Maddie thinks that Medea's 'revenge on the man who wronged her, you must admit, was a trifle excessive' (2004: 8), and although at one point she accuses Jason of being a 'Liar! Adulterer! Cheat! Murderer!' (2004: 338) and her resistance to Jason's treatment of her is expressed through her analysis of the play, it is Jason who is given the last word. When he comes upon Maddie directing the staging of the play, he addresses the girl playing Jason:
Don't ever think to cower before the spleen of any woman, no matter how formidable her cleverness, her courage, or her audacity. For you have that one quality above all others which the impassioned Medea lacks. You personify cool logic, an attribute which, in my experience, is rarely to be found in the female of the species, present company, one hopes, excepted. (2004: 366)
As an endorsement of women's mental capacities, it's lacking, and in the context of Jason's behaviour it doesn't seem to describe men very well either.

As mentioned above, Maddie distinguishes between love and liking, and it seems that Thornton considers Maddie and Jason be soul-mates. Such a construct does much to justify the ending, since their relationship is then to be considered one that's right, regardless of the violence, jealousy and emotional turmoil involved. Before Jason meets Maddie he 'disclaim[s] any experience of the phenomenon' of love and therefore 'I declare myself a skeptic and leave it to those who know better to convert me to their dogma' (2004: 34). His mother hands him a copy of Plato's Symposium, directing him in particular to 'what Aristophanes has to say' (2004: 35).*** Having met Maddie, Jason is a sudden convert to this theory:
"He believes that lovers are born joined but that the gods separate them at birth and they wander the earth, lost and lonely, till they find each other again. Only a few fortunate ones ever do. The unlucky ones learn to make do with second best - again and again and again."
"That's sheer myth," she retorted.
"So I believed. Until tonight. Now I'm not so sure." (2004: 53)
Maddie too feels something, though she's not precisely sure what:
Was she half in love with this Deveryn? She thought it very possible and she smiled to herself. He was like no other man she had ever known, but then, for a girl of nineteen years, she was singularly lacking in male acquaintances. Not that it mattered. If she had been acquainted with a thousand eligible young gentlemen, she would have instantly recognized that Deveryn was special to her. (2004: 61)
By the end of the novel she too accepts that her feelings are the love described by Aristophanes: ' "Aristophanes had the right of it," she said. "We are two halves of an entity. Apart, we're simply not whole. There's no other explanation" (2004: 381).

An important aspect of Jason's love is the possessive urge it brings with it: 'He wondered at the primitive drive throbbing at every pulse in his body, urging him relentlessly to make this woman his. His need to convince her that he was fated to be her mate surprised him as much as it delighted him. He had never thought to commit himself so totally to any woman' (2004: 55). Rape/sexual 'possession' is therefore portrayed as the result of the 'possessive urge' created by 'love'. Rape, then, rather than a violent act of aggression, is set in a context where it can be read as evidence that the hero and heroine are soul mates.

Another aspect of the novel which serves to justify Jason's behaviour is the way it is normalised. The rape is prefigured by a scene in which Jason feels jealous and
He had found her in the arms of another male, and the spectacle had unleashed some dark and sinister emotion, some primeval drive that was not to be denied. With lips, tongue, hands, and body easily breaching her defences, he ground himself into her, branding her as his woman, claiming her as his mate. More than anything, he wanted to tumble her there, in the orchard, and enter her body, possessing her fully, irrevocably binding her to him. That the instinct was purely primitive in nature, he did not doubt. (2004: 105)
These 'primitive', 'primeval' instincts, which can lead to 'dark and sinister' emotions, are portrayed as an intrinsic part of masculinity. In this novel, despite the fact that Jason's mother rejects the way in which 'Men [...] throughout history have divided the members of my sex into two distinct classes - good women and the other sort' (2004: 34), Thornton herself seems to agree that there are two sorts of women. She rejects the idea that 'good women' do not enjoy sex, but the dichotomy persists. Fallen Angel contrasts bad women (prostitutes or temptresses such as Maddie's adulterous step-mother, who had an affair with Jason), and 'good women'. The 'good women' may also be sexually active, but their role seems to be to help men, to tame them. Jason's mother describes the men of his family as 'Congenital savages' (2004: 368) and Maddie learns that when her own mother and father had a quarrel early in their marriage
" [...] It was no polite party yer faither put on that night but a drunken orgy. And thae were no ladies o' quality yer mother took her whip tae, but, if ye'll excuse my French, barques o' frailty. [...] Doxies, trollops, Cyprians, every last one o' them," said Janet [...].
Maddie's face was a picture of incredulity. "You're pulling my leg! Papa wasn't that sort of man. I don't believe he would have served Mama such a turn."
Janet answered at her bluntest. "Every man is o' that ilk, given the opportunity. Yer mither was wiser than ye are. She made damn sure that Donald Sinclair was never again presented wi' temptation. [...] She kent that it's the woman who maun make sure that her man keeps tae the straight and narrow" (2004: 359-360)
Thornton does not seem to blame men for this supposedly inherent part of their nature, but rather she gives a man's female soul mate the role of being sufficiently sexually alluring to tame a man and tie him into a sexually committed, monogamous relationship. Unfortunately this seems to support one of the many myths used to justify or explain rapes which occur in non-fictional settings. As noted on the website of Rape Crisis (England and Wales):
The myth is that men rape women because they do not have ‘legitimate’ access to women for sex. The idea is grounded on the belief that men have uncontrollable urges that must be satisfied. In fact, men’s sex drives are no more strong than women’s. If it was purely a biological urge, then masturbation would satisfy it. Men rape women to secure power and control.

* The age difference is one of which Jason is very aware at other times, but as he says: 'I don't always treat you as a child. There are some areas where you have a natural competence. With a little tutoring you should do very well' (2004: 158). The sexual innuendo is unmistakable and makes Maddie blush.
** Maddie herself makes the connection: 'Jason and his quest for the golden fleece. Medea's Jason ... Maddie's Jason' (2004: 132).
*** I've discussed the Symposium in some earlier posts, here and here. Jason's explanation differs in many particulars from the original, which can be read in translation here.

  • Thornton, Elizabeth, 2004. Fallen Angel (New York: Zebra). Picture of front cover from Amazon.