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It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me

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When I started this series, I was working toward a consideration of why certain types Romance novels and authors are so popular right now, especially when they have generated so much controversy and even divisiveness among readers. I started with the assertion that Romance, because it covers the territory of love, marriage, family, and relationships more generally, is very much a genre concerned with how power between individuals — and between individuals and society – is defined, granted, taken, exchanged, balanced, and otherwise negotiated in a way that is ultimately resolved into significant, even lifelong, mutual love and happiness.

Because Romance is a genre that in part grew out of sentimental fiction (inclusive of the so-called sensational novels), which itself grew out of captivity narratives (among other genres, including amatory fiction), the genre’s literary ancestry is rich and diverse, but also pretty consistent in its engagement with certain tropes, character types, literary devices, and archetypes that flow through more than 300 years of immensely popular texts populated, voiced, and/or written by women.

One of these devices – that of captivity – is especially robust in its persistence, and as I traced (in a much more simplified and superficial way than the topic deserves) the history of what are commonly referred to as North American Indian Captivity Narratives, I wanted to show how the device has adapted to different genres while still raising some of the same issues around how women (particularly women from Western societies) are both insiders and outsiders to the social power structure. Characteristics such as race, class, education, family history, and other forms of social capital will shift the insider-outsider balance, but the dynamic itself is always central to these narratives.

More specifically, I wanted to show that the motif of captivity is one that is very commonly used in the portrayal of romantic relationships (and clearly, its popularity in mythological and religious narratives is critical, as well), sometimes overtly (Mary Jo Putney’s Uncommon Vows), sometimes symbolically (Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Ain’t She Sweet), to bring the heroine into a place of unfamiliar extremity from the life she is used to, such that she can ultimately find a new “home,” constitutive of love and happiness with the hero.

One of the main differences between the original Indian captivity narratives and Romance’s adaptation, is that the heroine of yore was supposed to be “redeemed” to her original home, unchanged but not unchallenged by her experience. Indeed, she was supposed to be stronger and steadier in her religious and cultural convictions, as well as more “pure” in her spiritual mission. What often happened, however, is that the time she spent among people different from herself created a temporary bridge between her culture and theirs, such that the reader could vicariously experience the immersion of the heroine in this different cultural space. And let me be clear here in saying that these representations were not necessarily realistic nor represented without prejudicial and even racist attitudes. In fact, many of these narratives were written with the explicit intent to demonstrate the captive’s cultural and/or spiritual superiority to the captor’s society.

However, the representation of cultural difference in these narratives is compelling enough to bring the captive and her readers into a place of cross-cultural sympathy, which both subverts the narrative’s articulated intent and challenges many of the differences that the narratives tries to reinforce. Moreover, the narratives that provide the most generous space for a sympathetic bond between captor and captive/reader are those that have always been most popular. Mary Jemison, who married within the Seneca, renounced her Irish immigrant family and her status as an “American,” and lived for all intents and purposes as a member of the Seneca nation (two husbands and several children, included), is still having her story re-told, almost two hundred years after its first publication.

So what’s the significance of this for Romance? I think the answer is multi-layered and much more complex than I have even begun to explore in this series. But one important similarity I see is the way in which the Romance genre often treats courtship like journey into a new and different territory, one that requires a stripping away of certain layers to the heroine and hero (in straight Romance, at least; I think m/m requires its own conversation), and a reformation, in a way, of the individuals as they become a couple. In those books where the power between the hero and heroine is represented as most equitable, the change may be less drastic. In those books where either the power appears to be most inequitable, change may be more drastic, and depending on how the power is configured, its negotiation will require different changes from each partner.

The lack of a power imbalance between hero and heroine does not necessarily mean there will be no conflict in the relationship. In some cases, if you have a two alphas, for example, you may have more conflict between the protagonists, precisely because there is more power on both sides to negotiate. Similarly, a large power differential between hero and heroine does not guarantee overt power negotiations; how many historical Romances or Harlequin Presents novels do we see where a heroine with much less power seems to “lift up” the heroine to his social level, for example. However, it is often in books where there is a substantial power-related conflict between hero and heroine that we will see the presence of some sort of force that bears down on the relationship and the narrative, strong enough to effect a romantic resolution. Sometimes that force is the captivity itself (The Sheik, for example), and sometimes it is something else, either a force outside the couple or between them (in The Sheik, for example, there are several acts of force, and the one that solidifies the couple comes from an outside threat of violence to both of them).

Historically speaking, books that bring their protagonists into the greatest conflict and extremity are often seen as close to or even exceeding the genre’s boundaries – take the derisively named category of “bodice rippers,” for example. However, my position is precisely the opposite: that these books are at the very heart of the work the genre is doing vis a vis investigating how two people who often come from very different backgrounds and positions of social power can form a happy, well-balanced romantic unit. That these books take these dynamics to an extreme does not make them any less core Romance to me – in fact, I think that these are the books that are most overtly, explicitly, and intensely performing the social, gender, and sexual power negotiations that the genre continues to replay.

In fact, I would categorize many genre favorites among these Extreme Romances: Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels; Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold; Shana Abe’s The Smoke Thief (to take a recently reviewed classic); most, if not all, of Linda Howard’s books (I’d probably put a lot of Romantic Suspense here, actually, as well as many Paranormal Romances; Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooter series; Nalini Singh’s Psy series, Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series; JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series; Christine Feehan’s Carpathian books; Stephanie Laurens’s Cynster series; books by Maya Banks, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Charlotte Lamb (quite a few Harlequin authors, in fact), Anne Stuart, Johanna Lindsey, and Jennifer Crusie, as well as many authors of Erotic Romance.

While many readers don’t understand the popularity of authors like E.L. James or Kristen Ashley, I am more stumped by the divisive antagonism they have generated among Romance readers. However, perhaps this is another aspect of books that do push core genre concerns to the extreme: reader responses will mirror the extremity of the books themselves.

Which brings me to the questions all of this thinking about the genre and its historical development have raised.

First, how can we diversify the genre beyond the paradigms it so often reproduces. Paradigms that privilege whiteness, heterosexuality, economic prosperity, and a post-Enlightenment model of romantic love that depends on historically defined gender roles and sexual expectations? Sunita’s call for Romances that do not presuppose Western notions of romantic love comes to mind here, because what better way to challenge dominant social norms than by shifting the paradigms?

Second, have readers become too fluent in genre? One thing that seems to be a real strength among Romance readers is the ease with which we can become adept at knowing the kind of books we like and translate genre shorthand when an author doesn’t necessarily spell it out. But with this kind of fluency can also come the laziness of thinking we know what a book is going to give us – positive or negative – before reading it. We take shortcuts as readers, not necessarily giving a new book a chance because it has too familiar elements. We may no longer read as closely or as carefully, failing to interrogate things that wouldn’t really sit right if we really thought about them, refusing to be challenged by the possibility of a different perspective or interpretation. So have we started to shortchange ourselves and the genre by relying too heavily on reader fluency?

Third, when readers say they want new and different and fresh, what does that mean? One of the things I’ve heard over and over about Fifty Shades, for example, is that it’s the same-old, same-old, packaged as new. And in some ways that’s very true. There is a lot that is derivative about the story, a lot that’s traditional. And yet, I also think there are some provocative elements, provocative enough to have caught on beyond genre readers and to have women publicly talking about sexuality in bolder, more empowered ways. Which is not to say that a book like Fifty is a new reading experience for every reader, nor that its popularity will be understood by every reader (I think Kaetrin’s post on the unexplainable is appropriate here). Also, in an environment where people are still talking about “da rulez” and how restricting they are, Kristen Ashley is pushing more envelopes in her books than I’ve seen in quite a while. She’s tackling race, class, and characters off the grid. Yet, like James, she’s also working with some very traditional genre elements, too. And, like James, her books are selling like crazy, although not necessarily to the same readers. Some readers cannot abide either author’s books, but are still calling for “new” and “fresh.” So is there anything here — either in the voices of readers who love these books or hate them — that provides some clue as to what else readers are looking for?

As I argued in my post on Romance genre boundaries (e.g. there aren’t really that many), any genre is a mix of well-worn and freshly turned raw material. And I am starting to wonder how open readers really are to novelty in the genre – or whether there’s a point at which genre fluency becomes cynicism (this post by Tobias Buckell is an interesting take on the experienced reader). We say we want new, but just not that type of new (whatever “that” is). What are we looking for?

Do readers want books that break the so-called rules, or do we want books we can count on to give us a particular experience? Do we need to start challenging the dominant tropes, devices, and motifs of the genre, and if so, what would we want in their place? Does the HEA restrict the genre in terms of being able to pull off more difficult power negotiations – that is, do the aspirational qualities of the genre mean that the genre should not present certain scenarios? Or is it that we are at a crossroads of sorts: wanting something new but not knowing what that is; feeling compelled to return again and again to familiar ground, no longer truly satisfied, but at least recognized and understood. Like the genre itself, perhaps?

 

 

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

23 Comments

  1. Lia
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 08:02:27

    Robin, thank you for a thought-out post about this. I almost want to use the term “essay,” because it’s clear that you applied a scholarly interpretation to the subject matter. I alluded in another comment (to a post about a similar topic) that I suspect that a lot of readers who enjoy romance novels in which the heroine is oppressed (this is just the term I choose to use) may be young and/or lacking experience. If you’ve never been in a relationship with a controlling man (or never known someone personally who has been in this situation), I think that the notion of oppression goes down much easier. I remember being absolutely titillated by these books when I was around 13 or 14 years of age, because I … well, I was young, and I didn’t understand what it meant for a man to be a good man; I confused dominance and assertion with heroism, when in fact, they have nothing to do with each other. Controlling men (those who take women “captive”) are insecure bullies. That’s how Christian Grey, et al. come across to me.

    My revulsion for these books is largely due to my own experience. Parts of FSoG made me feel the same way I felt when I saw “Sleeping With the Enemy.” IRL, a highly unbalanced relationship in which the male asserts all of the power isn’t sexy. And there is no room for negotiation — that’s the big lie that some romance novels promote. It would be interesting to find out if the women who reacted strongly to books like this have been in emotionally or physically abusive relationships or relationships in which they felt stripped of agency.

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  2. Becca
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 09:01:37

    I loathe and despise the phrase “Mommy porn.” And my only problem with the plethora and popularity of erotica is that, whenever someone sees me reading a romance, they automatically assume it’s “mommy porn.” Sometimes I feel like people equate romance = erotica.

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  3. Emma
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 09:51:15

    This has been such a wonderful series. Your genealogy of romance is truly wonderful and I do hope you’ll write it up as a book chapter or article.

    I think what I’ve learned from your series is that extreme romance isn’t some other species, separate from the mainstream genre, but rather exists on a continuum with it. In some ways, these books can defamiliarize the genre for complacent readers — the opposite of the resisting reader? — and help us see the negotiation and politics in texts that we might otherwise accept without analysis. Kristen Ashley heroines have a really different relationship to their professional lives than the typical romance heroine, for example. So watching her heroines try to balance their jobs with their alpha male partners who want to interfere leads me to think about how work life is absent or deprioritized in other texts. (That’s not a great example, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind.)

    I’ve also been thinking some about the “new to romance” posts that Dear Author and other sites run from time to time, often penned by men. The reaction tends to be very positive, which means sense as such essays tend to be amusingly and engagingly written. But why would we as romance readers pay particularly close attention to them? Why is that POV more valuable? In addition to the gender deference, I think it may be the same impulse: it permits the reader to see the genre fresh. There are books that I would absolutely love to be able to read again for the first time (and I’m a dedicated re-reader, but it’s not the same). The trick is to let that POV reawaken your other reading.

    Okay, I’m rambling, but thank you! This has been so smart.

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  4. Laura Vivanco
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 11:16:45

    By coincidence, Amy Burge has been writing about captivity narratives too:

    the abduction or captivity motif plays a significant role in popular medieval romance. Several Middle English romances refer to captivity and ransom, for example Richard Coeur de Lion, and buying and selling people, for example Guy of Warwick, Sir Isumbras and Floris and Blancheflur.

    This is the first of a three-part post about abduction in Middle English romance, which will look specifically at the late English romance, Octavian. This verse romance poses some interesting questions about the politics of abduction in medieval romance, namely how abduction can be redefined as protection or rescue.

    Here are links to the three parts: One, Two and Three.

  5. Laura Vivanco
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 11:20:42

    Sorry to be a pain, but would someone mind pulling my comment out of moderation? I’ve included too many links again.

    [ETA by Sunita] Done.

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  6. LeeF
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 11:51:18

    Your series of in-depth analysis staggers me with the amount of thought and consideration that you put into each article. The ideas and critique you present are always thought provoking, especially to someone like me who is relatively new to the broad expanse of Romancelandia. Thank you for giving yet more to consider as I expand my romance reading universe.

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  7. Rebecca Rogers Maher
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 13:35:23

    Thank you so much for this thought-provoking series. It’s been fascinating to take this bird’s-eye view of the genre, to consider its relationship to other kinds of narratives, and to explore the cultural importance of the power negotiations at work in novels that might otherwise be dismissed as “extreme.”

    I’ve particularly appreciated how deeply you’ve analyzed the books you’ve chosen as texts. I think — as you may be suggesting — that this is the antidote to your point about reader fluency. We all have an immediate emotional reaction to the books we read, but we can go beyond that initial reaction and look at the text critically as well — exploring what it’s actually saying, and how and why, and interrogating our own reactions to that as well as the reactions of others both in the present and historically. That makes for fantastic conversation, and does something really valuable for the romance genre as a whole.

    We do need to take our texts seriously, both as readers and writers, and recognize that our books SAY something. We can and should be talking about that, above and beyond the immediate pleasures of the story (which are many, varied, and also valuable). Thanks again for such a richly detailed discussion.

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  8. cleo
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 15:34:52

    This is a timely post. I’ve just spent the day reading Heart of Obsidian (sure I’m not the only DA reader doing that :) ). And that book definitely fits your definition of extreme romance

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  9. leslie
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 15:43:07

    @cleo: OH NO! I am not happy to hear that about Heart of Obsidian. I was going to go to the book signing tonight……maybe I’ll wait and get it from the library instead.

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  10. Isobel Carr
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 15:48:07

    This series has been really interesting. I was surprised at first to see Nalini Singh labeled as extreme romance, but then I thought about it and realized that it does fit. I like her Archangel series, but am often really put off by the heroes’ behavior and attitudes. I soldier on because I enjoy the world building so much though (and the paranormal aspect allows for a distance that is lacking with KA, where I can’t help but think about the REAL LIFE ramifications of the characters’ actions).

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  11. MaryK
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 15:50:05

    @cleo: And me only on book three! :(

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  12. Fiona McGier
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 16:37:02

    Re: Lia’s comment about wondering if readers who dislike overly-alpha heroes have experienced abuse in their personal lives…I haven’t, but I dislike alphas in real life, so I dislike them in books also. Years ago in college, I used to get frustrated when girlfriends would complain about how their boyfriends were treating them, yet each time they’d choose another man who was cold, unemotional, and controlling. I began to call it the “Harlequin romance syndrome”, where the female assumes that it only takes the love of a good, pure woman, to change that man’s cold piece of coal into a heart of gold. What a crock! I’ve never seen any man change like that, but I’ve seen many women have their hearts broken before they were finally able to escape the abuse…or their own fantasy that change was always “just around the corner”.

    I write about complex couples whose balance of power is always more equal. Christopher Moore jokingly has his heroes call themselves Betas, because they’re the ones who get laid the most. How? While the alphas were out proving themselves, the Betas were back home, communing with the females, taking care of their needs until the big guys got back. Betas can be your best friend. An alpha, no matter how tamed you might think you made him become, will always think of you as inferior to himself. And any man who would hit me or abuse me, even if he thought I’d enjoy it, would have to learn to sing soprano.

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  13. Lia
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 17:26:52

    @Fiona McGier:

    Fiona, I like to call these men “faux Alphas”, because they’re not really Alpha.

    Not at all …

    Anyone (man or woman) who exerts control over another person has control issues of themselves, IMHO. I consider my Best Half an Alpha male, but he’s by no stretch of the imagination controlling — he’s confident, dashing, and he’s got a real mouth on him, but he is anything *but* that. (Note: I too suffered from Harlequin Romance Syndrome until I got deeply involved with a faux Alpha, and I learned how to appreciate men who didn’t need to be “changed.” Some of us learn after the first rodeo and don’t repeat the same mistake.)

    As a writer, I think there’s a way to craft a wonderfully Alpha hero — and even have the h/H butt heads —- without resorting to the same miserable “get the little woman under control” tropes. It’s exciting to pair two Alpha characters (Alpha male, Alpha female) and watch them try and figure each other out.

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  14. Karen
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 17:35:53

    You asked what readers are looking for when they say they want something “new”. I’d like to see more books that feature romances between equals. I understand the appeal of E.L. James and Kristen Ashley, but I feel like these power differential tropes have been explored over and over again in romance. It obviously still appeals to some readers, but I’d like to see more books where the equation is more balanced. I’m reminded of Julie James’s books, particularly her early books where the hero and heroine were both lawyers. Those books felt very fresh to me, because it wasn’t a story about strong man meets weak woman. It was a negotiation of equals. It’s surprising to me that those books are still so hard to find, particularly in the contemporary romance market. Not all romances are as overt about it as E. J. James, but even when it’s the small town hero who persuades the heroine to give up her dreams and move to his little town, there’s always that power imbalance. Where are the books featuring romances of equals? (I sometimes find this type of story in m/m romances, but I find m/m romances a little unsatisfying – I miss the female perspective.)

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  15. MaryK
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 17:36:46

    I’m not sure I know what you mean by “genre shorthand.” Are you talking about standard plot devices like if they forget to use birth control 9 times out of 10 it means there’ll be a “surprise” baby? I have DNF’d books lately because of things like that. I come up against what is a usual plot device and put the book aside because I’m pretty sure I know where it’s going. In regard to something new and fresh, I’d like fewer of those predictable plot devices. When the heroine overhears gossip about the hero, it doesn’t have to lead to misunderstanding.

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  16. cleo
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 20:10:04

    @leslie: I don’t think it’s any different from the other psy/changeling books – the hero is a super tough, protective alpha male, the heroine is no weakling, and she’s the only person in the world that he shows his emotional vulnerability to. This book deals explicitly with captivity (don’t want to be spoilery, but it’s in the excerpt), which is partly why I said it fits Robin’s definition. I enjoyed reading it. I have an allergy to overly-controlling asshole heroes and it didn’t trigger any allergic reactions. YMMV

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  17. Kaetrin
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 20:20:06

    @Emma (comment #3)

    I think what I’ve learned from your series is that extreme romance isn’t some other species, separate from the mainstream genre, but rather exists on a continuum with it. In some ways, these books can defamiliarize the genre for complacent readers — the opposite of the resisting reader? — and help us see the negotiation and politics in texts that we might otherwise accept without analysis.

    Yes. This.

    Great post (again) Robin. Thank you.

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  18. Janine
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 20:44:03

    Do readers want books that break the so-called rules, or do we want books we can count on to give us a particular experience?

    For me, the answer is some of both.

    As an aside here, even though I ended up quitting Motorcycle Man (the original, self-published edition) halfway through, I actually liked many of the things that made it feel new and different. I liked that the heroine was financially secure. I liked that the milieu was different. I liked the first person narration. My problems with the book were that Tack irritated me but more than that, that the book was taking too long (for how much patience I had) to get where it was going. I’m not used to 600 page romances and my attention span had a hard time adjusting.

    I feel you are making a big assumption in suggesting that readers who didn’t care for Motorcycle Man or for Ashley’s other books dislike them on the basis of their originality. I don’t feel that was the case with me.

    I enjoy a pretty wide variety of books but I do think there is a particular experience I’m looking for from romances, and that is a kind of warm glow that I get when I reach the last page and feel happy that I had the chance to vicariously share the characters’ experience of falling in love.

    I get that warm glow from romances with a big power differential between the characters and romances where the power between the characters is equal or close to equal; romances that are dark or ones that are comedic. But I do look for that sensation of being happy for the characters, and happy for myself, that I got to share in their experiences.

    Do we need to start challenging the dominant tropes, devices, and motifs of the genre, and if so, what would we want in their place?

    I have a hard time answering that question in full without putting my writer hat on. I think we all have our own particular tastes to satisfy and one way to do that is to imagine how a gap (something we wish we could read but can’t find out there) could be filled. For me that involves sitting down at the keyboard and writing — that’s the best way I know to satisfy that sense of something missing.

    I like to play with power dynamics when I write and for some reason three of my romance projects all have heroines whose social station is higher than that of the hero (although that doesn’t mean the hero is without power). If you’d asked me if a higher social station for the heroine was something I hungered for before I started writing them, I might have said yes, but then again maybe I would not have articulated this as being high on my list. But since it’s shown up in three of my four projects, it must be something I really want to see more of.

    Does the HEA restrict the genre in terms of being able to pull off more difficult power negotiations – that is, do the aspirational qualities of the genre mean that the genre should not present certain scenarios?

    Personally, I say no. You mentioned To Have and to Hold above and I am so glad you did — I was expecting it to come up in this series sooner. I love that book to bits. I find my love for it unsettling, and I don’t know if I could bring myself to write something like it, but it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to say that Gaffney shouldn’t have written it. It is justifiably controversial but it’s also a work of art.

    To take a book I was a lot less fond of, Jill Sorenson’s Aftershock had a secondary storyline in which some romantic feelings developed between a convict who had joined to the Aryan Brotherhood in prison for reasons of survival, and a Latina.

    The convict was a fake racist, but he had swastika tattoos — personally I was uncomfortable reading about this. It’s not something I personally want to see in a romance, I don’t think. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for such a book in the genre or that its author should have refrained from writing it. It made me uncomfortable — that’s all it means.

    For a redemption story to work, one of the characters has to commit a very real wrong. That’s never going to be popular with every reader, but for readers like me, redemption stories can be a source of hope. If the person who committed the wrong can grow and change, if they can attain forgiveness, then there is always hope for us. No matter how bad we may feel about something we’ve done, our real life transgressions are so much smaller that a big transgression in fiction can make us believe they are forgivable. For me, that has a lot of value.

    Or is it that we are at a crossroads of sorts: wanting something new but not knowing what that is; feeling compelled to return again and again to familiar ground, no longer truly satisfied, but at least recognized and understood. Like the genre itself, perhaps?

    I could be wrong, but I think what you are getting at here is that genre reading can generate dissatisfaction as well as satisfaction. Tropes can feel too familiar, even tired at times. I don’t think that’s anything new to this particular era in romance, though. I think we all feel some ennui on occasion and that those times can be crossroads in the sense of being opportunities for some new genre to emerge, be it Chick Lit or PNR or New Adult.

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  19. Silvia
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 00:10:00

    @Karen:
    I feel like I’m looking for the exact same thing — romance novels where the H/h have equal power balance — and yet I also am constantly thwarted. It baffles me, honestly, why there’s this obvious gap and it isn’t being filled. It seems to be like almost every other type of romance is out there for purchase but I can’t lay my money down for what I’m into. That’s the kind of “new” that I want to see and it isn’t being supplied.

    While this is a very smart and knowledgeable essay and I agree that the Romance genre has traditionally been very preoccupied with power negotiations, I’d like to see at least a subset of Romance novels become more and more disconnected from the idea of struggling against (and often giving into) male dominance.

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  20. Fiona McGier
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 13:13:20

    @ Silvia: “I feel like I’m looking for the exact same thing — romance novels where the H/h have equal power balance”

    Please give my books a look.
    http://www.fionamcgier.com

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  21. Janine
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 16:00:11

    @Silvia & @Karen,

    There are books like that but they aren’t very commonplace, it’s true. Maybe that’s a reflection of society? But regardless, I can recommend one, an oldie that’s well worth reading. Again by Kathleen Gilles Seidel. The hero is an actor on a daytime soap opera and the heroine is the head writer for the same show. Actually, many of her romances have characters who are equal or almost equal, but Again is probably my favorite.

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  22. Robin/Janet
    Jun 11, 2013 @ 00:36:33

    @Lia: I actually wrote a pretty long response to your last comment on my previous post. I responded to some of what you say here in that comment.

    My revulsion for these books is largely due to my own experience. Parts of FSoG made me feel the same way I felt when I saw “Sleeping With the Enemy.” IRL, a highly unbalanced relationship in which the male asserts all of the power isn’t sexy. And there is no room for negotiation — that’s the big lie that some romance novels promote.

    I think people read for many different reasons. I don’t in any way idealize the different romance scenarios I encounter in genre novels; in fact, some of the most interesting books for me are those that I would be the least on-board with in real life. So I think it underestimates readers to assume that we are all glorifying what we read in Romance novels.

    People read about all sorts of stuff – literary fiction is full of myriad things you would never want to encounter in real life, as are other genres. But we rarely worry about what men are reading, despite the incredible violence in video games, action/war films, and fictional genres they are more likely to read.

    I definitely think that different readers will have different points of tolerance with books; I just don’t think we can automatically suppose a one-to-one, reader-to-text relationship in talking about how readers consume texts.

    @Emma: I’ve also been thinking some about the “new to romance” posts that Dear Author and other sites run from time to time, often penned by men. The reaction tends to be very positive, which means sense as such essays tend to be amusingly and engagingly written. But why would we as romance readers pay particularly close attention to them? Why is that POV more valuable? In addition to the gender deference, I think it may be the same impulse: it permits the reader to see the genre fresh. There are books that I would absolutely love to be able to read again for the first time (and I’m a dedicated re-reader, but it’s not the same). The trick is to let that POV reawaken your other reading.

    This is a really interesting perspective. I have wondered if there’s a bit of ‘affirmation from a male voice’ element to the reviewing, but I also think what you’re saying is valid. Sometimes I want to try an experiment and take the same review and present it differently, with a male pseud and a female pseud to see if there’s any difference. Still, I think, given the female-centric Romance community, having a male respond favorably and at length to the genre also defamiliarizes it, so whatever effect is gender-related is likely not the whole of the effect. In fact, perhaps that gender difference is essential for the de-familiarization process to occur, as you note.

    Also, I love how you put that so simply in regard to my post — I wish I had said it so cleanly!

    @Laura Vivanco: Thank you so much for that, Laura!

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher: For me, realizing that the extremity was itself fundamental to the genre (like the way the word radical relates to the “root” of something), was key to understanding why some of these books have become so very popular and influential.

    @MaryK: By “shorthand” I mean the use of certain devices in a way that are supposed to stand for more than they are. Like the red-headed historical heroine has been shorthand for “feisty” — things like that. Where the reader fills in a lot of information simply through the use of a word, phrase, motif, trope, or device. In some ways, this can be helpful, but I think it may also have helped us become lazy readers, especially when a book wants to take us in another direction with those same tropes, etc.

    @Janine: I feel you are making a big assumption in suggesting that readers who didn’t care for Motorcycle Man or for Ashley’s other books dislike them on the basis of their originality. I don’t feel that was the case with me.

    But I’m not making that assumption. What I said was this:

    Third, when readers say they want new and different and fresh, what does that mean? One of the things I’ve heard over and over about Fifty Shades, for example, is that it’s the same-old, same-old, packaged as new. And in some ways that’s very true. There is a lot that is derivative about the story, a lot that’s traditional. And yet, I also think there are some provocative elements, provocative enough to have caught on beyond genre readers and to have women publicly talking about sexuality in bolder, more empowered ways. Which is not to say that a book like Fifty is a new reading experience for every reader, nor that its popularity will be understood by every reader (I think Kaetrin’s post on the unexplainable is appropriate here). Also, in an environment where people are still talking about “da rulez” and how restricting they are, Kristen Ashley is pushing more envelopes in her books than I’ve seen in quite a while. She’s tackling race, class, and characters off the grid. Yet, like James, she’s also working with some very traditional genre elements, too. And, like James, her books are selling like crazy, although not necessarily to the same readers. Some readers cannot abide either author’s books, but are still calling for “new” and “fresh.” So is there anything here — either in the voices of readers who love these books or hate them — that provides some clue as to what else readers are looking for?

    As I said there, I think that many readers are finding a lot new in FSOG. Some readers are also finding a lot new in Ashley. But these authors are not necessarily selling to the same readers. And some readers don’t like either James or Ashley’s books (although some are dismissing both out of hand without reading them, which is another issue altogether, but not completely unrelated). There’s other “new” out there, as well — the Cosgrove Painted Faces book, for example. So what I’m trying to figure out is whether there are clues as to what readers do want when they say they want new, because the market is producing some novelty.

    I will say in regard to 50, though, that I thought it was kind of ironic how some the calls for Romance to be more widely read seemed to grind to a halt when 50 became so popular outside Romance circles. It was like, ‘it would be great if more people read Romance — just not THAT book.’ 50, not MM, is actually what precipitated my comment about people wanting new, just not THAT new.

    But again, it’s not so much about not liking a certain author as much as trying to understand whether readers really have a sense of what we want, or whether we don’t really know what we want; perhaps at some point a “new” book will sweep the up the readers who hated 50 and MM. Maybe readers don’t really want new at all, but just a different re-telling of familiar. And although I’m using “we” and “readers,” I know that the answer will vary from reader to reader. Although that’s kind of what I’m trying to get at.

    ReplyReply

  23. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, or The ABG’s of Romance Heroes
    Jun 11, 2013 @ 04:01:08

    [...] I wrote my post last week on what I’m calling Extreme Romance, it seemed to translate for some readers into the ballad of the “controlling hero.” In fact, [...]

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