Last week I discussed Edith Hull’s 1919 Romance novel The Sheik, which I would offer as a potential nominee for first modern genre Romance novel. Bringing together themes and devices from captivity narratives, sentimental and sensational fiction, and other literary genres, The Sheik also created an iconic image of the romantic desert hero in the actor Rudolph Valentino, an image that has enjoyed popularity for almost a century now.
Before I move on to detailing the further development of this imagery in what we usually think of as popular genre Romance novels, I want to take a small detour (not really) to pick up on a discussion that often happens around Romance, that of so-called Old Skool v. New Skool books. In fact, a recent series on Romance in Amazing Stories references and builds on Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan’s explanation of this distinction from Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels:
Old Skool (their spelling), exemplified by the historical and contemporary romances of the ’70s which could best be generalized as “bodice-rippers” with a problematic popularity of rape (or “forced seduction” as the apologists would have it), and;
New Skool, which really came into its own in the ’90s, with more assertive heroines juxtaposed against less brutal, more sensitive heroes.
Yesterday, The Atlantic published an article by historian and feminist blogger Jessica Luther (in which I’m quoted, among authors and other bloggers), which also depends Sarah and Candy’s handy historical differentiation to discuss the way in which writing Romance and writing about Romance can be a feminist endeavor. And let’s face it: this sense of the genre as divided somehow, with the so-called “bodice-ripper” a phenomenon of the past and a sense of the genre as forward-moving, is so common as to be entrenched within canonical genre discussions.
But is it accurate?
Not as far as I’m concerned.
Let me first say that I have mad respect for what Sarah and Candy have done for the genre and the community, and I think their book is a very valuable resource for anyone interested in Romance and the readers who love it. But I think it’s time to take a second look at this old v. new opposition. As someone whose Romance reading ramped up at about the same time as the 21st century, I was reading titles spanning forty or so years in a non-linear, non-chronological way, and I just didn’t see these same distinctions. For example, take Violet Winspear’s Blue Jasmine, the book I noted last week that’s almost a stereo echo of The Sheik. But where Hull’s Ahmed sexually forces himself on Diana without mercy, Winspear’s Prince Kasim refuses to cross that boundary of physical force on Lorna. That’s right; the sheik in the 1919 book is the “rapey” hero, but the sheik of the 1969 book isn’t. In fact, Harlequin/Mills and Boon is a great place to see the long-term diversity of the genre. In 2009, for example, they held a 60-year cover retrospective, and one of the curators noted that
“Rather than being retardataire [outdated], many of these images are extremely cutting edge,” she said. “There are images of women doctors before women were really embraced by the workplace. There are women who are adventuring around the world before independence is really part of women’s culture.”
This doesn’t mean there aren’t changes and discernible trends; the question for me is how much our desire to simplify and quantify these perceived shifts contradicts the ebb and flow of a genre that is constantly reworking the same tropes and archetypes, as it circles a surprisingly consistent range of conflicts, questions, and issues. Negotiating general issues with the complexity of specific treatments is a difficult balancing act, and one that requires the broadest diversity of voices possible. The temptation to generalize and reduce isn’t necessarily wrong, but it doesn’t always get us to the right place, either. And I think the perception that there is a clean division within the genre in regard to sexual politics exemplifies that particular conundrum.
For example, the rapey hero definitely survived and thrived beyond the 70s. There’s Catherine Coulter’s Rosehaven, published in 2000, in which the hero not only rapes the heroine to claim his ‘marital privilege,’ but his female servants subsequently chastise the heroine for not being ‘too proud’ and not submissive enough. In Christina Dodd’s A Well-Favored Gentleman (1996), the hero takes the heroine’s virginity while she’s drugged and unconscious, completely without consent. In A Well-Pleasured Lady (1997), the hero initiates his plan to marry the heroine by holding her up against a wall and taking her while she cries, tells him no, and physically tries to fight him off. The 2007 release of Anna Campbell’s Claiming the Courtesan featured a hero who takes the heroine captive and tries to force sex on her until she falls in love with him. She eventually does fall in love with him, despite his early cruelty to her. Mary Jo Putney’s Dearly Beloved, published in 1990, begins with the hero’s rape of the heroine, followed by hundreds of pages of him treating her like crap because he got caught and had to marry her (I really hate that book). Sara Craven’s 2012 The Innocent’s Surrender, features a hero who takes the virginal heroine captive and tells her he will not release her until she has sex with him. And if you still doubt that these so-called “Old Skool” books aren’t being published today, and you’re convinced 50 Shades is a fluke, I have four words for you: The Lords of Satyr.
And let’s not forget some of Linda Howard’s contemporaries, like 1995’s After the Night, where the hero is responsible for having the heroine and her family thrown out of town in the middle of the night, and, years later, decides in a similarly autonomous way that she must be His Forever. Or 1996’s Shades of Twilight, which features an incestuous relationship and a hero who practically force-feeds the heroine when he decides she’s too thin. And Maura Seger’s 1986 Silhouette Dark of the Moon, in which the heroine is an undercover customs investigator looking into possible theft at a Silicon Valley company. When the owner discovers her true identity, he basically places her under house arrest, threatens to rape her in retaliation for breaking into his office, and yet still falls in love with her and doesn’t insist she quit her job for him (it’s really quite a good book – Seger is also known for her Medievals under the name Josie Litton).
On the other side of the hero + violence gamut are all of the Regencies of the 70s and 80s, which didn’t even feature sex, let alone forced sex or rapey heroes. One of my favorite books is LaVyrle Spencer’s 1984 release Spring Fancy, the first Harlequin Temptation, which featured a physical therapist heroine who cheats on her perfectly decent fiancé with another guy who’s a lot less rich and ambitious. Her mother raised her alone, she openly (i.e. on page) takes birth control pills, has an athletic, rather than wispy or voluptuous, figure, and does not want to give up her career for marriage. I think this book is more progressive than a good chunk of what’s being published today in Contemporary Romance.
Even among the epics we often associate with violence, there is often a range of experience. Bertrice Small’s 1981 Skye O’Malley, has everything from expansive historical landscapes to gang rape to multiple partners for the independent, swashbuckling heroine. Mary Jo Putney, who wrote one of the douchiest heroes in the genre, in my opinion, also wrote some much more sensitive historicals. In fact, I’ve read so many Romances that defy and linear evolution of the genre in regard to sexual politics between the hero and heroine (and in the books more generally), that I can only scratch the surface of the surface here. For example, while Maura Seger’s Dark of the Moon and Spencer’s Spring Fancy still feel contemporary today (with some swapping out of specific cultural references, of course), Ruthie Knox’s 2013 How to Misbehave felt put me in mind of Tom and Sharon Curtis’s Lightning that Lingers, published in 1983. Some things have changed, of course. Books that might have been published as epics previously may now be broken up into a series, for example (although anyone who has read Kristen Ashley’s books knows they are loooooooooong). Paranormal and Erotic Romance have become specific subgenres in which more extreme sexual politics are perceived to be more at home. Still, I think we are doing ourselves and the genre a disservice by marginalizing these early books and privileging later ones.
I don’t know how much of this is a product of the way so many genre readers have experienced the genre: older books read by younger readers who continue to read as they get older, experiencing and remembering books differently. I don’t know how much of it is a subconscious defense mechanism in response to the perception that certain genre tropes are “bad” and that we’ve grown out of them, or evolved beyond them, somehow. But if you read some of the comments on Jessica Luther’s Atlantic blog post, and then reflect on some of the responses to the Stuebenville rape trial verdicts, I think the way we see the historical trajectory of genre Romance matters. But I think we tend to simplify the richness of that history, to the detriment of the genre itself.
Still, it matters because we’re still in the midst of dealing with a rape culture that allows mainstream media outlets like CNN to publicly display sympathy for men who rape and suspicious disdain for its victims. It matters because a thoughtful post on Romance and feminism cannot appear in the mainstream blog without being subjected to charges of “female porn” and accusations that women are playing games with men, perpetuating the shroud of shame that’s still looming over female sexual fantasy. It matters because Romance is, as Cecilia Grant pointed out in Luther’s blog post, at once celebrating traditional social institutions and empowering its heroines to challenge them in a variety of ways. It matters because we’re still largely talking about these issues within a white, heterosexual context, and because so much of Romance makes at least superficial use of cultural and class differences to forge romantic bonds and negotiate sexual, social, economic, and romantic power. It matters because when women talk amongst ourselves about love, we’re doing so against a social backdrop of high domestic violence rates, victim-blaming in rape cases, lawmakers who believe that God prevents pregnancy in rape victims, increasingly draconian anti-choice measures, and myriad challenges for women raising children alone, beyond even non-existent and inadequate child support.
But it also matters because Romance so often reflects the kinds of struggles real life women have in regard to work-home balance, sexual fantasies and shame, communicating needs to partners (and children, and parents, and…), and division of domestic labor in a society where men are still often seen as weak for taking paternity leave or choosing to stay at home with children, among other things. The complexity of the choices we have to make, alone and in concert with partners and children, is immense, and a genre like Romance reflects that in so many ways, some more symbolic (forced seduction that leads to the tamed hero and true love), some more literal (the heroine who has to start over after a bad divorce). To draw these old v. new divisions narrows and flattens a generic fluidity that makes room for so many different tropes, devices, themes, archetypes, stories, and voices. The genre’s strength lies in its hybridity, and its capacity to represent, reflect, and provoke conversation about some of the most intimate and deeply felt issues important to us as women. And, for that matter, the men who are always implicated in women’s lives, whether or not want to be part of the conversation. But it would be great if more of them wanted to be.
And while we’re at it, I have one more small request: can we maybe begin to rethink the idea that the genre really began with The Flame and the Flower?