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Out on the Border

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Note: This is super-long, but I wanted to talk about the E.L. James and Kristen Ashley phenomena together. I will be doing the final summing-up post next week, so this one might appear to end abruptly. Sorry about that, but — surprisingly enough — even I run out of steam!

When I started writing this series, I was working toward this post, a speculative argument about the popularity of what I like to call Extreme Romance, from Linda Howard and JD Ward to Johanna Lindsey and Anna Campbell – well, you get the idea. Among the latest entries into this arena are E.L. James and Kristen Ashley, whose books are quite different but still, I think, characteristic of what makes this kind of Romance so compelling to such a diversity of readers, compelling enough, in fact, that readers will overlook writing and editing flaws to embrace the books.

As I’ve noted in the posts leading up to this one, genre Romance has itself evolved out of a literary ancestry that includes the North American Indian captivity narrative, amatory fiction, and sentimental and sensational novels – all genres that share similar tensions around social power and cultural identity. This is not a surprise when you consider that they are dominated by women – as authors, readers, and protagonists. And that these genres so often contemplate the experiences of women living in societies that empower whiteness, heterosexuality, patriarchy, and capitalism – all social institutions to which women have varying degrees of belonging, exclusion, submission, ambivalence, and rebellion.

Even readers of genre Romance have had long-standing curiosity about the popularity of novels that portray a relationship between the hero and heroine that seems so unbalanced in terms of power, and so fraught with tension, angst, and even force or violence. But when you consider the history of all of these other immensely popular literary genres that women wrote and read voraciously, I think the question begins to answer itself, and the answer is something like: how could these books NOT be so popular, precisely because they play out – often in the most extreme, melodramatic, close-to-the-line ways – these tensions and power negotiations, and they do so by pushing the most vexing dimensions into the starkest relief. So while readers are not watching their lives play out in fiction, these books are energized by an extreme fictional portrayal of conflicts and tensions that reverberate through the real lives of women.

I want to emphasize that last point, because so often fiction that portrays the emotional lives of women is conflated with the emotional responses women readers have to these texts. I think it’s extremely important to distinguish between having an emotional response to a text and the emotional journey of the characters in a text. Because we bring our own values, beliefs, ideals, and socialized identities to the process of reading, we may have certain predictable judgments, sympathies, and reactions to books; however, it is just as likely that we will respond to texts in ways that seem illogical or even contrary to what we consider our “taste” or real life beliefs. This is all part of the symbolic work of fiction and the multi-layered relationship between reader and text.

The recent popularity of authors like E.L. James and Kristen Ashley bears this out, I think, because the sheer number and diversity of readers drawn to books by these authors defies easy explanation of reader “type,” which is often where these discussions often seem to wander. However, I think there is something typical in the texts themselves – that is, something consistent to these Extreme Romances, despite the substantive differences among the books – that makes their popularity understandable, and that something is the way these books often push hard in opposing directions simultaneously.

Take James’s Fifty Shades trilogy, which I’m basically treating as one book for the purpose of this argument. The story is superficially derivative of Twilight, the jaded billionaire + innocent but plucky virgin pairing so often associated with Harlequin Presents, and that 91/2 Weeks-ish eroticism that slips back and forth between passion and punishment (I don’t like referring to the sex as BDSM, since Christian’s sexuality is clearly portrayed as the result of emotional trauma, and therefore as something that needs to be “fixed”). But the book hit way beyond Romance-reading and Twilight-loving circles, to readers who claimed they had never read anything like it, nor imagined themselves liking it.

So why did they unexpectedly enjoy the book so much (beyond the explicit taboo-busting sex)? I think Feministing’s Maya Dusenbery explains it succinctly: “The negotiating that happens in their relationship is what’s compelling about the story.” And she goes on to comment on the general popularity of the submission fantasy:

I am in no way surprised that many women, who have been socialized in a culture in which male sexuality is linked to domination and in which women are taught their sexual power comes from being wanted, have fantasies of submission.

I think there is a really fundamental way in which the idea that not only power, but also a sense of worth “from being wanted,” is something women simultaneously believe and reject, accept and resist, and that a book like Fifty Shades plays that dynamic out in ways that guarantee a happy romantic ending, the physical and emotional safety of the reader, and the ability to give or withhold consent for Ana and Christian’s relationship. All of that creates a safe and compelling space in which the reader can vicariously experience the submission and resistance of Ana in a way that pushes boundaries in both directions. How that plays out for each reader is not, I would argue, reducible to a neat verbal equation, which only makes the powerful effect of books like Fifty Shades more comprehensible. Because these conflicts and negotiations – when it is okay to submit, in what ways should one submit, for what reasons, what can one expect through submission, etc. – are so broadly and profoundly socialized.

Take the conflict between Christian and Ana that occurs when she decides to go topless at the beach in Monte Carlo on their honeymoon. Christian approvingly calls Ana “brazen” for her growing sexual confidence, telling her that he will “take [her] any way he can get [her],” but when he returns to their loungers and finds Ana topless, he completely loses his cool, dragging them back to the yacht they’ve arrived on, where he gives her an incredibly intense sexual experience and physically marks her with hickeys and cuff burns so obvious she will not be able to go anywhere in public for a while. “You drive me crazy,” he tells her, “So I am going to drive you crazy.” He tells her how beautiful she is and how much he loves her Ana’s sexual pleasure turns to horror when she views the marks on her body, telling him, “you have to stop unilaterally trying to bring me to heel,” reminding him that marks are a “hard limit” for her. Whereas he sees “taking off your clothes in public” a “hard limit,” and he also reminds her that paparazzi will likely revel in pictures of her, which will in turn embarrass her family. However, after they confront one another, Christian begs for forgiveness, which Ana extends, having been told by Christian’s therapist that he is an emotional adolescent and will act out as such when he feels out of control.

And control is Christian’s safety mechanism. Later in the story, when Christian knows Ana is not safe (prospective kidnapping), she changes going-out plans without telling him, which almost results in her kidnapping. Again, Christian’s impulse it to punish her, turning hot and cold emotionally and sexually. Ana is at once frustrated because she expects to be able to act independently, as a grown woman should, but she understands Christian’s anger as an extension of his fear for her safety. Just as with the bikini, she receives a powerful mixed message: Christian loves and wants her so much he cannot stand the idea of anything bad happening to her, but he also manages that love by attempting to “bring her to heel” as a supplicant.

This dynamic has, of course, defined their relationship and the trilogy: Ana is different from all the other women Christian has known, and he is willing to grow beyond his initial uncomplicated desire for control to have a more emotionally equitable relationship with her. However, the more emotionally bonded they become, and the more in love with Ana Christian falls, the more unsafe he feels, and the more control he wants over her, even as she feels more and more empowered to resist.

The intensity of their battles is reflected in the intensity of their sexual relationship, which reinforces the initial dynamic: the more wanted Ana feels, the more her confidence grows. But the more her confidence grows, the more independent she feels, and the more Christian wants to control her. But because his need to control grows out of his need and wanting for Ana, it creates a deep sense of ambivalence in Ana that seems virtually unresolvable, even as the story promises a happy ending for the couple. And whatever one might think about the craft, plot, and stereotypes in the trilogy, it does a lot of what we expect in Erotic Romance – negotiating power, developing the romantic relationship, and charting character growth through sex.

Within the James trilogy, the element of submission is, I think, a symbolic analogy to the captivity narrative, as Ana struggles with the extent to which her sexual submission both validates Christian’s control over her while empowering her to experience intense pleasure. Pushing past her previous boundaries contributes to Ana’s growing sense of independence, which stands in resistance of Christian’s control, something that pays off with his desire to grow and change, but also causes intense friction in their relationship, which cycles back into intensely pleasurable, boundary-pushing sex. Thus the text is always negotiating with the extent to which Ana is powerful, what kind of power she has and exercises, and how she can exercise that power in an intimate relationship with someone who ideally would like her power to be that of the submissive (surrender rather than autonomy). And because Christian and Ana both change, the power negotiation continues to evolve to meet different levels of sexual and emotional intensity and risk, a process which is played out for the reader.

The novels of Kristen Ashley – which are much more numerous and diverse than James’s to date – also overtly address these gendered power negotiations, albeit in somewhat different ways. Motorcycle Man seems to be the standout for readers among Ashley’s books, although her books do vary in subject matter, characters, and themes. They are also different from James’s trilogy in the way they are generically adventurous: she writes multicultural/interracial Romance; tackles class differences, suicide, PTSD, substance abuse, second marriages, losing a spouse, and disability; writes older heroes and heroines; provides her heroines with numerous, supportive female friendships (and not all the women get their own books); creates a relatively diverse world, inclusive of gay couples, people of color, veterans, etc.; writes heroines who out-earn the hero and/or who may have a secondary relationship during the book; and lots of other stuff I can’t remember right now. In other ways, though, her books are pretty traditional: the protagonists want marriage and children; there is some slut-shaming, including by the heroines toward themselves, and fetishization of virginity; the heroes tend to be protective, caretaking alphas comfortable with their authority (they are often cops, PI’s, bounty hunters, and the like), and other stuff I can’t remember right now.

All that is part of what I think makes her books so compelling for readers, but Motorcycle Man takes it to another level by creating a sub-universe within the book, the Chaos Motorcycle Club, with its own rules and customs. The story then brings the heroine into that world (and by extension, the reader), where she must submit to new rules and customs in order to be considered fully equal to the hero within the romantic relationship. And in the process of making this cultural transition, the heroine is actually encouraged to stand up to the hero, which creates an interesting power dynamic between them.

Within an hour of meeting Kane “Tack” Allen, Tyra Masters is in his bed, convinced, over the course of many orgasms, that he is The One. Until he slaps her on the ass, tells her it’s time for her to go home, and instructs her to leave her number. When she shows up a couple of days later to her new job, she has no idea how Tack is going to react, given the fact that he is now her boss.

This dynamic is repeated multiple times throughout the novel, and it pretty much sums up the structure of the relationship and Tyra and Kane’s character development: Tyra steps out of her comfort zone, Tack shocks her, Tyra wants to step back, but Tack provokes her into fighting back and remaining invested. Tack is an enormous risk for the woman who has lived a very safe, considered life, not only because he is unpredictable, but also because Tack expects Tyra to follow the rules of Chaos (and that’s a purposeful paradox, I think) without question:

“I’m thinkin’ you don’t get this but when you turn off Broadway into Ride, you drive into my world. My world is different than the world you live in. Unless I allow the parts of it I like, you don’t get to live like you live in your world when you’re in mine. And when I’m in yours but you’re with me, you live like you’re in mine.”

Because they’ve slept together, Tack initially does not want Tyra working for him. Until she stands up to him:

“Now, you listen to me, scary biker dude,” I snapped. “I need this job. I haven’t worked in two months and I need this job. I can’t wait two more months or longer to find another job. I need to work now.” His blue eyes burned into mine in a way that felt physical but I kept right on talking. “So you’re good-looking, have great tats and a cool goatee. So you caught my eye and I caught yours. We had sex. Lots of sex. It was good. So what? That was then, this is now. We’re not going to play, not again. We’re done playing. I’m going to come in at eight, leave at five, do my job and you’re going to be my scary biker dude boss, sign my paychecks, do my performance evaluations and maybe, if you’re nice, I’ll make you coffee. Other than that, you don’t exist for me and I don’t exist for you. What we had, we had. It’s over. I’m moving on and how I’m moving on is, I’m… working… this… job.”

So Tack changes his mind, warning Tyra that they will, indeed, play again, and that she wants that as much as he does:

“Red,” he said softly. “You entered the game, it’s my game, babe, you play it my way.” “I don’t want to play games,” I told him.

“Oh yeah, you do,” he told me and I shook my head.

“I want to do my job,” I stated.

“You get to do that too,” he returned.

This is really the crux of the conflict between Tyra and Tack. They come from different worlds – and much of that is about gender differences – and they don’t really know each other’s language. Tack shows up at Tyra’s unannounced with pizza and beer and talks her into letting him stay. He watches The Color Purple with her, because that’s her favorite movie. He’s a loving, devoted father to his teenaged children and an outstanding, practiced cook. He believes in marriage and fidelity. Other times they miscommunicate and provoke each other into a standoff, which often results in Tack trying to physically contain Tyra, which both infuriates and frightens her. But when she expresses her fear to Tack, he gets even angrier:

“Please,” it was barely audible, “you’re scaring me.”

That penetrated and it did it in a way that made him even angrier. I knew it because I saw it on his face, in his eyes and I felt it in the air around us.

“Do not be scared of me, Tyra. Don’t you ever fuckin’ be scared of me.”

“Tack, you just manhandled me onto my desk,” I pointed out carefully.

“Did I hurt you?”

“No,” I answered and it wasn’t a lie but that also wasn’t the point.

And the difficulty–for them and the reader–is that most often, both Tack and Tyra are right in the way they are looking at a particular situation, which both amplifies the drama and their continued exchanges deepen the connection between them. Tyra does not sit back and take what Tack dishes out; she fights him and tells him that he’s out of line. But Tack understands the intensity of their mutual attraction and the ways in which he basically has to dare her to take emotional risks with him.

Which is also the position of the reader, who is likely watching this all play out with fascinated horror. Tack can be obnoxious as hell, but Tyra pushes back. And it is truly an awkward, problematic position, because Tyra’s conflict is such that wanting her to walk away indicates a lack of confidence in her own initial happiness in Tack – her belief that Tack is her invitation to live life in color, as she puts it. But to side with Tack is to collude against Tyra’s completely sensible reactions, and to believe, as Tack does, that Tyra really does want what Tack wants, undermining her individual agency.

Complicating this further is the questions of trust that the text specifically works over: Tyra trusting Tack to take care of her and never hurt her; Tack trusting that Tyra wants the same thing he does; the reader trusting that this relationship is worth investing in and consenting to. In other words, the challenges that Tack and Tyra have, the conflicts they work through, and the risks they have to take are mirrored to some degree in the reader’s progress through the book.

Take, for example, the way Tack likes to wrap his hand around Tyra’s neck, something she initially perceives to be an aggressive gesture but is later revealed to be of a completely different nature. Like Tyra, the reader must trust that Tack is trustworthy, because the payoff is not immediate, even though the reader, like Tyra, is given small reassurances throughout the book. Like Tyra, we are being invited into Tack’s world, and entering it fully means that we have to be willing to play it his way. Which, from Tack’s perspective, means a submission to the world itself, not to his individual control — the difference specifically expressed through Tyra’s various acts of resistance, defiance, and, at one point, full-out rejection of a relationship with Tack.

Author Elyssa Patrick has compared this dynamic to one you often see in Paranormal Romance (or even Urban Fantasy):

Heroine who knows nothing about the “other world” (in this case, it would be Chaos as opposed to say Black Dagger Brotherhood) is brought into the world through forced circumstances in that Tyra needs a job. She is partly fascinated by these bikers, partly appalled. The bikers are a serious group of mostly Alpha men, like the Black Dagger Brotherhood. The men have tight, close bonds. Loyalty is valued, and the brotherhood is true and deep. Those who act against them soon feel their wrath. The women aren’t ever part of this group; they are claimed by the bikers and given protection once everyone knows this particular woman is his. On the same end, the woman is only his (if it’s meant to be). And there are some women (like the one who sleeps with Hopper) who are passed around to fulfill a man’s needs (much like how some women are offered to the vampires in Black Dagger Brotherhood for blood feedings). The heroine is put at peril; often at such circumstances that she is seriously harmed but brought back to life and fully integrated/accepts her new world. (There are two instances where this occurs for Tyra–the first when she goes after the guy who hit Tabby and is “fully” accepted by the other bikers because of that, and the next when she’s kidnapped, stabbed, and then wakes up and totally accepts this new world as hers.) The hero, Tack, much like paranormal heroes behaves in abhorrent ways toward the heroine at first but, at the same time, it’s clear he’s marking her—no one else can have her, no one else will do, and when she resists, he shows her how much she is for him.

Unlike Christian Grey with Ana, Tack doesn’t want to control Tyra; he wants her to accept his “claim” on her without her relinquishing her strength. Unlike with Tack, Christian’s control is characterized as a destructive force on the relationship that eventually evolves. So while both Fifty Shades and Motorcycle Man explore sex, power, and love, they do not replicate the same dynamics, nor do they resolve them in the same way. Yet both utilize the captivity theme as a means to effect a happy, equitable romantic relationship.  What, for me, places them in this informal category I’m calling Extreme Romance is the fact that they perform these negotiations of power in ways that push a number of opposing boundaries simultaneously. Whether any given book will work for the reader depends on the particular ways in which the text engages the reader’s own imagination, a process as mysterious as it is capricious.

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!

41 Comments

  1. Mary Anne Graham
    May 28, 2013 @ 07:06:01

    Extreme Romance? Great term.

    Over-the-top is the most fun to write – and the most fun to read.

    Who wants a life or a love that is “typical” or “realistic?”

  2. Patricia Eimer
    May 28, 2013 @ 07:37:13

    I like the tag of extreme romance and I agree with Mary Ann, I think the extreme is fun to read because it’s so far removed from our own lives

  3. Ainslie Paton
    May 28, 2013 @ 07:42:15

    Oh Robin – thank you. More please.

  4. Ceilidh
    May 28, 2013 @ 07:45:00

    This is a great post but I will never ever for as long as I live understand the appeal of Ashley’s books. They’re so heinously written that all I can do is laugh and look for a red pen. “Extreme romance” is a handy term to have for future use though.

  5. Emma
    May 28, 2013 @ 07:45:14

    I love this post, and indeed everything in this series. I’m curious about how — and if — what we learn about the genre from extreme romance applies to mainstream romance. If the appeal of extreme romance is the negotiation of the relationship because real women negotiate with systems of domination in their lives, then what’s the appeal of a romance in which the negotiation in sublimated or absent? Is that the ultimate submission fantasy?

    Brilliant work as always, Robin; thanks!

  6. mari
    May 28, 2013 @ 11:05:44

    the papers I had to write to get my MA in English. (*shudders at the memory*)

    The problem I have (and its just my problem, I don’t, can’t and won’t claim to speak for other readers) is that most analysis of the romance genre starts with the idea that there is
    something seriously wrong with society and women in general. The analysis then seeks to find this wrongness in romance books and then extrapolate further onto a meta analysis of the fucked-upedness of women’s lives in general and how wrong society is and horrible it is to be trapped by categories of race and power and gender and heterosexism.
    The underlying assumption behind these analysises (sp?) is that if society and culture weren’t so horrible to women, these books would have no reason to exist. The author of Feministing sums up this mentality beautifully (sorry I can’t copy and paste on this phone). Basically, in her view, the fact that women enjoy these books, is merely a by-product of a subjugated and enslaved mentality. In other words, romance books are the manifestation of a sick, misogynistic culture that feeds women fairytales to keep them as slaves to the patriarchy.

    If this is the view of the person doing the analysis, then deconstruction (which in my view is a fancy way to say “destroy”) makes perfect sense. Well of course, the analyzer would seek to destroy and reduce the enjoyment of the reader…how else can the reader have her thinking corrected and her political consience raised? This is the end, desired result of this kind of criticism. In the end, one is taught to hate (sorry “regard critically”) that which one would instinctivly love.
    I don’t wish to argue about the patriarchy or misogyny or race or power (other than to say I have never, ever regarded heterosexism as a source of conflict in my life) and I can’t deny these are real and genuine conflicts in life. Of course they would appear in romance books. However, the idea that I read romance books to see any of these conflicts worked out is absolutly laughable. As if the sheer enjoyment, the sheer power, the absolute love of reading and romance and the power of the HEA can be diminished by dreary little Marxist categories of race, gender, class, et. all.

    Nope. Not buying it. At all.

    So do I think these things shouldn’t be talked about, discussed, etc.? Of course not. But if race, gender, patriarchy, heterosexism, etc. are a reality for some and indeed the only correct world view for many, then all I ask is another world view/reality be brought into the discussion. This world view starts with the fact that in spite of all the myriad reasons women and men can’t have a HEA,many manage to find one. Romance books reflect the power, the generosity, the selflessness the passion, the physical and spiritual, social and psychological aspects of love in all its many aspects in this world.. Romance books dare to say bravely (and even realistically sometimes!) that with love, real love however imperfectly practiced, all these things that keep us apart, can be overcome
    I look upon romance in my life and in my reading as a way (however dimly and imperfectly ) as a way to grasp at some aspect of the Divine.

    To put it bluntly: Romance is about brave, happy, perhaps stupid at times, foolhardy wonderful optimism and hope. In spite of all the reasons I know I shouldn’t, I still believe.

    I feel like Puddleglum in Lewis’ s The Silver Chair when the Witch was trying to persuade him that all that was good and true was false and the only reality was the one being presented to him. Dark. Dreary. Limited. Depressing. In the end, he responds with a rousing speech about how he’d rather go to his death believing in the illusion created by children then the nonsense being presented as reality by the Witch. Because a bunch of nonsense dreamed up just by a bunch of kids beats the crappy world the powerful, oh-so-smart Witch created. The Witch has been trying all along to convince Puddleglum that everything he believes in is false. She fails. In a rather definitive way. I find this rather uplifting.

  7. Anonymousie
    May 28, 2013 @ 12:06:08

    I have tried to read these books. Both Ashley and James. I tried to read Twilight, for that matter. I want to see what is going on in the world of fiction, the things that make people talk, excite them to read.

    But “extreme romance” doesn’t work for me. And of the people I know for whom it does work, none have had actual experience with violence. That is, women who have suffered stalking or abusive relationships tend to recognize the heroes of these books as unredeemable. The ones who find the relationships “exciting” or “romantic” are ones who have never actually lived the life. While it may be that there is some sort of female empowerment happening by the end of the book, most of the women I know who’ve struggled with such things IRL won’t get far enough in the book to find it. The ironic truth is that the ones who will enjoy reading about it don’t need that kind of empowerment–they’ve probably already got it. It’s like watching a The Walking Dead: you know zombies aren’t going to overtake your home, so you can enjoy the little chill and thrill without fear. If one day someone invented a virus that really did bring back the dead, that franchise would be OVER.

    Perhaps that is the nature of romance in general–the fantasy of a life that is far removed from your own–but I do hope “extremity” in this particular form doesn’t infect “non-extreme” romance.

  8. Anachronist
    May 28, 2013 @ 13:21:52

    Extreme romance is a great term but it doesn’t necessary means ‘extreme’ fun to me. Sometimes less is more and such novels (?) like 50 Shades should have never existed. Just saying.

  9. Rei
    May 28, 2013 @ 14:03:15

    @Mary Anne Graham:

    For some reason something always nags at me when I see that sentiment expressed. I mean, of course it’s perfectly valid, but…

    I suppose what gets me about ‘extreme romance’ (good term) books not that they’re unrealistic. I don’t really care if a setting is far-fetched as long as the plot and the romance move me. The problem with power-plays such as the ones Kristen Ashley and EL James portray is not that they’re unrealistic – it’s that to me, they *are* realistic. Horribly so. There’s a difference between a really intense relationship in which both of the protagonists push each other and drive each other crazy and it’s maybe kind of unhealthy and they’re not always perfect and it’s kind of messed-up but you believe in it and a book like Motorcycle Man, where I always felt like the hero was intimidating the heroine and any pushback she gave was undercut with him getting, in some small way, what he wanted.

    (I also sort of feel like statements like “who wants a life and love that’s typical or realistic?” take kind of a dim view of real lives and loves, but…but maybe that’s just me.)

  10. Lia
    May 28, 2013 @ 14:04:54

    Mari wrote: “The underlying assumption behind these analysises (sp?) is that if society and culture weren’t so horrible to women, these books would have no reason to exist.”

    The problem with any assumption made about this genre is that it is typically made subjectively rather than objectively. As a university educated woman with multiple degrees, it’s easier for me to critique romance novels like Twilight, 50 Shades, etc., for how they purportedly “hinder” women rather than to explain to you (objectively) how they reflect how women really are. Romance novels may mirror the societal problems women face; however, there’s also a lot of bizarre-o wishful thinking in them thar pages. I don’t even know where to begin with this. I don’t see some of the tropes in these books as being healthy. I’m not sure they should be promulgated. To me, they read way too much like the old bodice rippers of yore for my comfort level. No, there’s no outright rape; however, the men are controlling and manipulative, typically holding the purse strings. It bothers me quite a bit to think that women embrace these aspects of patriarchy.

    Most of the women commenting to this thread are similarly well educated, critical thinkers. *We* can get past the fluff, the fad, the ultimate fable of the extreme romance and have our guilty little pleasure. But is that so true of the general collective, d’you think? Isn’t it important to find out what it is about this type of book that appeals to women — and why?

  11. Mary Anne Graham
    May 28, 2013 @ 14:40:41

    @Rei:

    Maybe how we feel about those terms and – those types of “extreme” books has a lot to do with why we read. I tend to read for escape – to experience something or someplace new and amazing. Someplace or sometime full of the heights and depths of emotion – so long as the visit ends with a HEA, of course.

    I’m sure there are other people who read because they want to experience more of the “reality” they’re used to. It’s hard for me to relate to that , which has a lot to do with my job – I’m a lawyer/scrivener. I do appellate work/briefs and deal with some of the worst, most tragic cases you could imagine. So, I get lots of reality in my daily life.

    In my reading and my writing – I want something as far away from my daily “reality” as I can get. I even prefer that in my contemporaries – I want them to be so big, and broad and dramatic that I can just enjoy…….

    Perhaps neither preference is better than the other and it may indicate that your daily reality hasn’t put you off “real life!”

  12. Erin Satie
    May 28, 2013 @ 14:55:32

    @Robin: I think this post is excellent. Really resonates with me.

    Only one thing to add. You wrote:

    I think there is a really fundamental way in which the idea that not only power, but also a sense of worth “from being wanted,” is something women simultaneously believe and reject, accept and resist

    I was always taught that my worth came from being useful or productive. Obviously this is just my upbringing, but it’s common enough. People who ‘contribute’ have more value than others, so the goal is to ‘contribute’ something useful to the world or society.

    I think it’s easy to get wires crossed. Especially if you’re mixing an unconscious lesson with an explicitly articulated one. So if your value as a person comes from doing something useful, and a man “needs” you or makes you feel “wanted”, then you’re triggering that more conscious message, as well. If you’re wanted/needed, you must be useful, if you’re useful, you have worth.

  13. Jen
    May 28, 2013 @ 15:15:42

    Extreme Romance is a great term indeed, mostly because of the extreme, almost allergic reaction I get to these books (I read the first 50 Shades and two of Ashley’s books). I don’t understand the appeal, at all. Even if I managed to overlook the bad writing, I still can’t get comfortable in those worlds, can’t let go and enjoy the ride (things like Ashley’s ham-fisted portrayal of race relations/interracial relationships in Lady Luck kept drawing me out of the “story”). Also, the heroes just plain make my skin crawl. They sound like overgrown children with all of that “MINE!” crap.

  14. Moriah Jovan
    May 28, 2013 @ 15:48:48

    @Lia:

    Most of the women commenting to this thread are similarly well educated, critical thinkers. *We* can get past the fluff, the fad, the ultimate fable of the extreme romance and have our guilty little pleasure. But is that so true of the general collective, d’you think? Isn’t it important to find out what it is about this type of book that appeals to women — and why?

    Are you saying we intelligent women must protect the less intelligent women from themselves and their deplorable taste in reading material, and to do that we must ferret out the appeal and eradicate it?

  15. Darlene Marshall
    May 28, 2013 @ 15:59:33

    I too like the tag “extreme romance”. Too often, however, I look at popular books like these and end up not reading them. It’s not the material or tropes, it’s the quality of the writing. I refuse to read a novel where I have to grit my teeth to get past the writing quality–or lack of it–to the heart of the story. There are too many well-written books on my TBR shelf.

    I’ve tried–three times–to read E.L. James. I may try again because of her novels’ importance to the genre and best selling books, but the last time I tried my mind kept wandering to the Kate Noble sitting on my table (Let It Be Me–excellent) and I’d end up going for the quality.

    I’d like to read more in the Extreme Romance lines, but with better writing.

  16. Evangeline
    May 28, 2013 @ 17:04:25

    Brava, Janet/Robin.

    I haven’t read any Ashley books, but as an unashamed fan of the Fifty Shades trilogy, that section resonated with me. The reason why the trilogy stuck with me, and still pops up in my conscious ever so often, is because of the extreme power dynamics between Ana and Christian you pinpointed so well. I don’t think this is absent from “non-extreme” romance–all of Jane Feather’s novels feature a fierce power struggle between the hero and heroine, and Lydia Joyce’s novels are sometimes difficult to read because of this dynamic as well. The difference is that it takes three 400+ page books to watch them navigate this struggle, and the BDSM and sex are a large part of characterizing this struggle, whereas romance novels are one 350-400 page book and the history isn’t utilized as fully as the BDSM.

  17. Isobel Carr
    May 28, 2013 @ 17:28:21

    @Rei:

    The problem with power-plays such as the ones Kristen Ashley and EL James portray is not that they’re unrealistic – it’s that to me, they *are* realistic. Horribly so.

    I think this may be in large why I can’t understand the appeal of these books.

  18. Evangeline
    May 28, 2013 @ 18:58:04

    @Isobel Carr: My reaction is my own.

    I went into FSoG with last year’s chatter in my head. I didn’t feel comfortable stating an opinion about the books–about the ethics of P2P and fan-fiction, yes, but the contents of the books, no–without reading them, and so I did. To make a long story short, I was drawn to the trilogy because it dove headfirst into the emotions of sex, wealth, power, dominance and submission, passion, the pull of one’s past, friendship, coming of age, redemption, and love. I also love that communication was a key element to Ana and Christian’s relationship: when conflict within the romance genre tends to rely upon the protagonists holding back, keeping secrets, and misunderstanding and miscommunicating with one another, it was refreshing and sometimes raw to read about the importance of Ana opening her mouth to talk to Christian.

    –But I’m going to stop here because so many elements overlapped and entwined with one another, and called and echoed throughout all three books, I would probably end up writing a huge essay about FSoG, lol. In closing, there was never a moment whilst reading or re-reading the trilogy where I wasn’t actively thinking about things, and even now thoughts and reactions bubble to the surface that make me go “Hmm…what/why/how.”

    On a tangent, my only wish is for a space to discuss the trilogy with others, since the reaction only veers between “squee!! Christian Grey is so HAWT!!!” and “these books are the downfall of civilization/dangerous to women!!!!.”

  19. Kaetrin
    May 28, 2013 @ 22:13:50

    I haven’t read Fifty but I have read some Kristen Ashley and I am an unashamed fan. I wrote a post a while back about Joanna Wylde’s Reaper’s Property which, at the time, was the first book of its kind I had read and I was dubious about whether I’d like it. Much to my surprise, I did. I tried to articulate why and I ended up with that the setting was “fantasy” to me – hyper-real and extreme and that individual elements were not dissimilar to many popular mainstream books which are not similarly criticised (so far as I can tell at least) – the difference being that those elements were presented together in one book rather than spread out over a number of them.

    As far as I’m concerned, Kristen Ashley’s writing is not “bad”. Perhaps my definition is merely different to that of others. Perhaps I have read the “good” books. In any event I find them immensely entertaining even while there are, at times, problematic themes and other things with which I occasionally struggle (disclaimer: I’ve read maybe 7 of her titles at this stage). I absolutely agree that her books are not for everyone and if someone doesn’t like her books, I feel no need to evangelise and force them down anyone’s throat. There are plenty of books by popular authors I’m not into. Everyone has their own tastes and they are entitled to like what they like and dislike what they do not without apology.

    I’m happy to have robust discussions about interracial relations, slut shaming, power dynamics and all the other interesting and potential problematic things. I’d like to engage with readers of various opinions on these issues.

    But it bothers me that I see, time and time again, from a certain section of the online community, a “tone” that suggests that people who like Ashley’s books (to use one example) should be dismissed as having no taste/education/intelligence/opinion of value and any reaction to that inference is further dismissed as “defensiveness”. I suspect that there is heightened sensitivitiy to such inferences nowadays and the “defensiveness” has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know I tend to react with the baggage of past conversations in tow. I’d really like to shift the conversation back to books and not their readers.

  20. Janet/Robin
    May 29, 2013 @ 00:18:52

    @Ceilidh: Ashley’s main writing flaw is the run-on sentence. I have definitely read books — traditionally published books — that I find to be quite a bit worse. I think it’s a function of whether the voice appeals. When you connect to an author’s voice, flaws are diminished, but when you don’t, they seem to stand out.

    @Emma: I think these books exaggerate issues that permeate the genre. Sometimes they may be reflected in an external conflict for the couple (the domineering parent who doesn’t want the couple to marry; the “bad” mother or impoverished father looking for his daughter to marry well, etc.). Although I don’t want to suggest that these are the *only* issues the genre is dealing with. I think there are a number of clusters of issues that tend to be rehearsed over and over. So I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on books that seem to torque the other way!

    @mari: I disagree with the idea that analysis of the genre rests on an idea of negativity, or that the project of analysis is a negative process. For some, understanding these issues is a constructive, positive experience, whether it’s in discussing them with other women, looking at how they play our in different characters, or even just vicariously experiencing them in fictional characters.

    Emma, the commenter above, wrote a post on politics and Romance (http://authoremmabarry.com/2013/05/28/politics-and-the-romance-novel/#more-458), and she said something I think is really important:

    I think it’s difficult to write or market an obviously political book in a literary culture that denies the political dimension of most texts. If we’re pretending that a run-of-the-mill Regency or small-town contemporary is without statement about power or politics, it’s going to be very difficult for a novel that addresses inequity — across race, class, sexual orientation, nation of origin, etc. — to make it.

    At the end of the day, I’d wish we talk about power and politics in every novel in more complicated ways, thus opening the market to the voices that are currently excluded.

    @Anonymousie: I do think there’s some kind of magical distance a reader needs to have from the events of a text to enjoy it, but I think it’s different for each reader. That’s why I tend to focus on clusters of issues within texts, because I think *how* readers absorb what’s in the text varies in many ways and for many reasons. Some issues may be known to the reader and consciously pursued in reading, others may evolve into consciousness and in or out of interest, and some of which won’t or maybe can’t ever be fully known or understood.

    @Anachronist: For all of the ways in which 50 has taken a beating, I think it did something incredibly important, and that is it got women talking about sex, sexuality, sexual fantasies, and power in public, unashamed ways. And for all of the accusations that the book is a conservative Romance packaged in sexy wrap, that it got women engaged in discussions about their own sexual fantasies and the claiming of their sexual power seems downright subversive, given the fact that there are some people who still don’t even think that women should or do have sexual fantasies. For that alone, I think the book has earned its keep, so to speak.

    @Rei: To me, what Ashley does in MM is force Tyra to stand up and take power in the relationship. So it’s not ever going to be a restful experience for either of them, but I saw Tack as wanting her to be that fighter all along, and to stand up for herself and what she wanted/believed in. When she decides she wants to quit her job, for example, he calls her a coward and tells her he cannot believe that after she fought to keep the job that she’s just giving up. He liked it when she fought. Of course, in a way, she is giving him what he wants, because he wants to be her man. So the larger question is whether the reader is okay with that. For you it sounds like the answer to that question would be no, but I think they’re pretty well-matched by the end of the book. I also welcomed the explicit anti-domestic violence message in the text.

    @Lia: To me, they read way too much like the old bodice rippers of yore for my comfort level. No, there’s no outright rape; however, the men are controlling and manipulative, typically holding the purse strings. It bothers me quite a bit to think that women embrace these aspects of patriarchy.

    One of the interesting things about Ashley, is that her heroines are all self-supporting. In the case of Motorcycle Man, Tyra really has her life together. She has a supportive family, a strong group of female friends who are not sequel bait, she owns her own home, she’s had a stable work history, and she’s got a good head on her shoulders. In other KA books, the heroine out-earns the hero. In The Gamble, for example, the heroine is a lawyer, while the hero is a contractor. They explicitly discuss the fact that she earns more money than he does, and neither cares. This is one of the reasons I think they’re NOT just being manipulated or beaten down. They’re smart, educated, strong women who take on these strong men and negotiate the relationship in directly articulated ways.

    @Erin Satie: I think that’s a very good point. I also think women, especially, are socialized to feel like they have to earn love, which can mesh with the work ethic culture in powerful ways.

    @Darlene Marshall: I’d put Linda Howard in this category, as well as Anne Stuart, Kresley Cole, and, actually, probably quite a bit of PNR. In fact, I think Linda Howard’s Blair Mallory books are great examples (one of Ashley’s books, Mystery Man, put me in mind of Blair many, many, many times).

    @Evangeline: I don’t have the same emotional connection to 50, nor does James’s voice really work for me, but I really agree with you about the layers of the book. The second time I read the trilogy I was struck by how much overt work the book is doing with gender roles, sexual power, and control. Even when I’m not so happy with where the book is going, I can appreciate the way boundaries are being crossed in the process, and I think that’s something that’s worth taking a closer look at. We tend to focus on the ending of a Romance to see if the characters are happy, etc., but the ending is really about the form – so much happens on the way that may actually be more provocative and interesting.

    @Kaetrin: I actually wanted to post the link to your post on Wylde, but my article here got too long and I couldn’t really get to what I wanted to say about it. So since you brought it up, I’ll post it here for now: http://kaetrinsmusings.blogspot.com/2013/02/fantasy-to-hyper-extreme.html

  21. Kaetrin
    May 29, 2013 @ 00:30:54

    @Janet/Robin: & @ Rei In fact, Tack specifically says to Tyra that her “attitude” (ie, giving him attitude) was what made him realise that she was worth keeping in his life. When they initially hooked up, he had just thought of her as another woman. (And he ends up majorly groveling for thinking that and hurting her in the process.) But that she stands up to him and fights for what she wants and believes him is what makes him so attracted to her. She is in no way a doormat and she has significant agency, IMO.

    And yes, Robin, now that you mention it, Gwen is a lot like Blair Mallory (perhaps not *quite* so much hard work) – and they are certainly both really funny.

    As to the run on sentences – I kind of miss them in the newer, traditionally published books. I had to learn to “speak Kristen Ashley” but once I got the rhythm of it, I found it just really worked for me.

  22. Maya
    May 29, 2013 @ 07:04:10

    Who is Kristen Ashley?

  23. Lia
    May 29, 2013 @ 07:54:17

    @Janet/Robin: Thanks for your response. I’ve not read Ashley’s books, so I can’t speak to her writing. But I’ve attempted FSoG and gave up at the point when I started to get creeped out by the so-called “hero.” It wasn’t just about the sex — it was about the emotional and physical manipulation. Having personally been there myself, this is not sexy. It’s not romantic. It’s not love. There’s a lot of talk about “negotiating power.” And I still say NO. Women should *not* have to “negotiate” anything with a controlling man. Ever. If we give these behaviors the green light, where is the line in the sand, then? Do we permit the hero to hit/beat the heroine and couch it as “foreplay” — ? What’s *not* okay these days?

    I ultimately can’t in good conscience be politically correct about an issue that’s so politically incorrect. The pen is mightier than the sword, and she (or he) who wields the pen has the moral duty to ask, “Am I putting something out there that encourages rape culture or insinuates that men who try to subvert a woman’s agency are ‘heroic’?” Younger women aren’t stupid, that’s not what I meant — but lacking real life experience, they are more vulnerable to influence. In this case, we as authors can either care about the message we send or we care about selling gobs of books. I care about the message.

  24. Emma
    May 29, 2013 @ 08:12:06

    So many things to say! Let me limit myself to this: I haven’t been reading romance for very long, but in that time, I feel like I’ve heard the same conversations repeatedly; one motif being that readers need to be protected from bad books. Both formally bad (bad writing) and thematically bad (bad content). This is an argument with a very long history going back, at least, to the objections about the novel form in the 18th century, hysteria about women readers, and so on.

    In its modern incarnation, I first encountered this argument vis-a-vis Twilight, which was my entry point into the genre. But at a midnight screening of New Moon, the conversation lost its mojo for me. I saw young women laughing at the film, openly mocking much of the objectionable content, expressing sexual desire, and generally interacting with the text in really complicated ways. At these were people who presumably liked it. The movement of ideas wasn’t one way from the film (or the book) into viewer’s minds without amendment or resistance. Indeed, the very existence of Fifty Shades indicates that readers had a strong emotional response to Twilight, and then changed the text to suit their own ends. It’s like Foucault and Barthes writ large.

    At the end of the day, the best reaction to extreme romance is, I think, smart criticism. Intelligent, probing, explications that seek to discuss narrative politics out in the open. But we need to bring these lenses to bear on the more innocuous romances too. My guess is that the “think of the children” response Ashely and James invoke is often motivated in part by an assumption that the rest of the romance genre needs to be separated from those bad influences. After all, the arguments levied against Motorcycle Man and Fifty Shades are often those we hear about romance in general. Just as I think readers have complicated reactions to Nora Roberts that lead them to be able to separate fantasy from reality, etc. etc. etc., I think the same is true of the readers of extreme romance.

  25. Criticism, Reader Shame, and Problematic Books — Radish Reviews
    May 29, 2013 @ 09:02:15

    [...] been thinking about this issue because of this post over at Dear Author–Robin takes a close look at E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey and Kristen [...]

  26. Zoe York
    May 29, 2013 @ 11:25:30

    Very interesting post, thank you!

    It took me a while to get into Kristen Ashley. I DNF Mystery Man, and skimmed large chunks of Motorcycle Man. It wasn’t until I read the Colorado series that I got the appeal, and then I got it in a major way. I highly recommend The Gamble and the rest of the series as a starting point for KA. I think I’d have enjoyed Motorcycle Man more if I’d read it after falling in love with Max, Tate, Ty and Chace. And I might have put up with Gwen if I’d read her story after Nina, Lauren, Lexie and Faye.

  27. Maili
    May 29, 2013 @ 14:44:13

    I think the question begins to answer itself, and the answer is something like: how could these books NOT be so popular, precisely because they play out – often in the most extreme, melodramatic, close-to-the-line ways – these tensions and power negotiations, and they do so by pushing the most vexing dimensions into the starkest relief. So while readers are not watching their lives play out in fiction, these books are energized by an extreme fictional portrayal of conflicts and tensions that reverberate through the real lives of women.

    How would you compare that with traditionally male-oriented genre fiction? Western, thrillers (James Bond for example), etc.?

    I find it interesting that the OTT aspect is conveyed through intimate relationships and/or sex in Extreme Romance within traditionally female-oriented genre fiction while (as it seems to me) it’s conveyed through a protagonist’s abilities – superbly skilled marksman, skilled businessman, skilled crime investigator, etc. – in Extreme Whatever within traditionally male-oriented genre fiction.

    The former generally requires the involvement of a (usually male) romantic interest to obtain HEA while the latter generally survives without the involvement of a (usually female) romantic interest to obtain SE (satisfying ending).

    It’s also important to note that, possibly, lack of traditional power negotiation may be the reason why BL manga and M/M Romance are so popular with female readers and authors. Doesn’t this suggest that as a whole, there is an awareness of that in traditional female fiction, which could prompt some to turn away from Mainstream Romance towards M/M Romance? Ironically or not, it does swap a set of problematic issues with another set of problematic issues, but this time, a typical (female) reader isn’t directly affected, which is probably why it works for some.

    Sorry that it’s so messy. I wanted to wait until your conclusion next week, but thought I should throw my fleeting thoughts out there for the time being. Thanks.

  28. Rei
    May 29, 2013 @ 15:22:21

    @Kaetrin: I think there’s a significant grey area between “doormat” and “heroine with agency”, is the thing. I’m not going to argue that Tyra was a doormat, because she clearly wasn’t – she called Tack out any number of times. The thing that stuck out for me was that each time she did it seemed to be undermined somehow – normally because “you’re living in my world now and that is the way things are in my world”. He might have listened to her and enjoyed her attitude, and he might even have apologised to her for some things at some times, but my reading of it was that he always came up as the boss. Which, again, is not to say that other interpretations aren’t valid – but that is what stops me from calling Tyra an empowered heroine. (I actually blogged a bit more about this fairly recently over where I’ve got my romance-critique column, but…but I’m nervous about self-plugging.)

    @Mary Anne Graham – This is definitely a YMMV situation; I understand your reasons for wanting escapism more than realism entirely, and sometimes escapism is what I look for as well. But I don’t really think that “it’s just escapism” can or should be used to excuse problematic elements of a genre (not just the romance genre, either, ’cause the same is very much true of fantasy and sci-fi fans). I suppose my escapism needs to be a little more realistic in how it deals with certain things to really slot into my escapism-slot. If…if that makes sense.

  29. Shelley
    May 29, 2013 @ 17:33:39

    I thought this a very interesting article. I have not and will not read FSoG mainly because of the author’s bad attitude in the wake of her success with her fanfic. (BTW, I’m not a fan of Twitlight either) I’ve read several KA books and she is very hit or miss for me. I’ve got MM but haven’t read yet but I have a feeling I will enjoy it for the most part.

    It’s also fun and interesting to read the different reasons why people enjoy reading romance and most particularly “extreme romance”. I have found I will start a new extreme romance when I’m in a particularly bad mood and am not in the mood for a bunch of touchy/feely crap. I don’t know if the OTT alpha male bullshit and ensuing fireworks with female (or male) protagonist somehow appeases my foul mood or what, like maybe I got to go a couple of rounds without getting beat up? :O) Some requirements that are must haves for me in this type of romance are a strong heroine (not necessarily kick-ass but always strong minded w/o being TSTL and with integrity), fidelity (unless it is a menage and agreed upon ahead of time), generally no kids involved in storyline, and a very alpha male who can somehow intuit said partner’s wants and needs and extend understanding and tenderness without looking like a total pussy who also has integrity (hey, I’m paying for it, I can have what I want /smile). Most any occupation can work for me except pimp as KA insisted on making her “hero” in “Knight” (didn’t get it then, don’t get it now) or breaking the law for personal gain. Yeah, it’s pretty specific but I like what I like and with all the indie and new writers out there in addition to some of my favorites, I can usually find something I like.

    I’m reading “Beautiful Bastard” now and it’s pushing all my buttons so far so I’m happy (relatively). :O)

  30. Beth
    May 29, 2013 @ 18:32:47

    Shelley: Was it really necessary to use a gendered insult like “pussy”?

  31. Shelley
    May 29, 2013 @ 19:53:00

    @Beth:

    “Shelley: Was it really necessary to use a gendered insult like “pussy”?”

    Well, Beth, since that’s the word I used, I guess it was. I do apologize if you’re offended though. I could have used the word “dick” and somehow I don’t think you would have been near as offended even though that might be considered denigrating to men. Just a thought.

  32. Beth
    May 29, 2013 @ 20:04:04

    Shelley: Yes, I would think that “dick” would be a gendered insult, because it reduces a person to body parts. We can do better, even when it comes to insults directed to privileged classes.

  33. Shelley
    May 29, 2013 @ 20:42:09

    @Beth:

    Shelley: Yes, I would think that “dick” would be a gendered insult, because it reduces a person to body parts. We can do better, even when it comes to insults directed to privileged classes.

    WTF? Privileged classes? You’ve lost me on that one to be honest so I’ll just address the rest of it.

    Wasn’t my intention to offend, but I’m not going to apologize for using the word “pussy” to describe certain unlikable characteristics of people. I use “dick” pretty regularly also as an insult. And I say the word “fuck” rather frequently. I guess some would say that denigrates the act of “making love”. Sue me. I love to swear.

    Hmmm. Reducing a person to a body part. I call bullshit because, that to me, is over-analysing the issue. I myself choose not to scrutinize the shit out of every freakin’ potentially misogynistic phrase or word because I think it’s just silly and exhausting. Does that mean I’m not a feminist? That I hate men or women? No, it doesn’t. All it means is, is that I can be a crude and crass person at times. Nothing more, nothing less.

  34. Beth
    May 29, 2013 @ 20:52:25

    Privilege, meaning that men have controlled more money and power for centuries, and they still do. The same way white people have. This doesn’t make any one man a bad person–far from it. It only acknowledges the weight of history and the language used by those in power to categorize women, POC, and LGBT as lesser people–even if those words are used by habit and not deliberately.

    So, yes, words do matter. I simply pointed that out.

  35. Ridley
    May 29, 2013 @ 21:08:56

    @Shelley:

    Does that mean I’m not a feminist?

    Buried Comment (Reason: Moderated)   Show

    It means you use marginalizing language in a manner inconsistent with intersectional feminism, and dapple in gender essentialism to boot.

    If you’re cool with that, party on. But it is indisputably exclusionary and not terribly conducive to productive discussion.

  36. Shelley
    May 30, 2013 @ 16:16:17

    @Beth:

    Ahh I did wonder what nuggets of wisdom I would find when I visited today.

    “privileged classes”

    I think I’m entitled to my confusion because frankly, I don’t know that you actually understood what you were saying when you used this phrase earlier.

    “It only acknowledges the weight of history and the language used by those in power to categorize women, POC, and LGBT as lesser people–even if those words are used by habit and not deliberately.

    So, yes, words do matter. I simply pointed that out.”

    My, these are some deep and heavy thoughts and do feel free to stand on your soap box all day long but it simply won’t matter as I don’t feel I committed any type of crime or even faux pas. You, however, are skating very close to attempting to make me out as racist, anti-feminist, and/or anti-LGBT when I’m not. Until you actually know me, don’t start throwing your elitist bullshit agenda around indiscriminately.

    @Ridley:

    “It means you use marginalizing language in a manner inconsistent with intersectional feminism, and dapple dabble?? in gender essentialism to boot.”

    I have absolutely no problem with not being consistent with your brand of “intersectional feminism”,

    Buried Comment (Reason: Moderated)   Show

    whose definition I firmly believe you twist to fit your own angry agenda as you post to this blog and others.

    I am a feminist and I won’t use a buzzword like intersectional to describe that state of being as I have never discounted any one woman or group of women from the unified goal of feminism.

    As for gender essentialism or any other essentialism, once again, I call bullshit as you don’t know me so you couldn’t possibly know how my mind works, most certainly not from the pithy comment I posted in the first place. I am a professional, independent woman and I support myself in a job where I work day in and day out with men and women of every ethnicity, nationality, and sexual orientation. I treat everyone I deal with every day in a courteous, respectful manner and I do it happily. I’m not prejudiced. I’m not bigoted. It is simply another facet to my personality just like my occasional toilet humor is a small facet of my being. This obviously is not your brand of humor and that’s ok. I’m past caring, to be honest.

    “If you’re cool with that, party on. But it is indisputably exclusionary and not terribly conducive to productive discussion.”

    If it makes you feel better to consider me an exclusionist

    Buried Comment (Reason: Moderated"], then hey, whatever blows your skirt up.

    I know what I am what I am not and I’m ok with it. [shush reason="Moderated)   Show

    I hate to burst your radical bubble,

    but I wasn’t even going for productive discussion. I was just shooting the shit with other people who like to read.

  37. Janet/Robin
    May 30, 2013 @ 16:30:30

    I won’t have time to substantively respond to comments until tonight, but in the meantime, I’m just going to ask that everyone takes aim at the topic and the books and not each other. Thanks!

  38. Janet/Robin
    Jun 02, 2013 @ 22:22:03

    First of all, I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to respond to individual comments; work kicked my ass last week, and I haven’t had a long stretch of time to contemplate everyone’s comments properly.

    So a few general comments to start.

    Re. the “pussy” debate, I’m not a fan of the word for either men or women (I think this open letter to Jon Stewart is a good summary of my own feelings about it: http://www.chicagonow.com/families-in-the-loop/2012/03/dear-jon-stewart-stop-using-the-word-pussy-thanks/), but you know, it’s amazing how many of our insults and swear words are either spiritually (damn you!) or sexually (fuck you!) contextualized. So I’m wondering if this lovely little deconstructed visual is the way to go: http://cheezburger.com/894987520

    On the subject of intersectionality, for anyone not familiar with it, the term itself has been around since the late 80s, coming out of the Critical Race Theory movement that rose in legal studies during that time. Kimberle Crenshaw may be best known for popularizing the term (here is an 1989 article she wrote entitled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics” http://faculty.law.miami.edu/zfenton/documents/Crenshaw–DemarginalizingIntersection.pdf – note, this is a pdf upload), and I think it’s more properly characterized as an “analytical tool,” as Jennifer Nash refers to it, than an actual school or type of feminism. The term and its application is also pretty complex and varied, and Nash, an American Studies prof at George Washington U, wrote a nice overview and analysis of the term in her 2009 article, “re-thinking intersectionality”: http://www.palgrave-journals.com/fr/journal/v89/n1/full/fr20084a.html#bib20. As an interesting sidenote, Nash wrote her doctoral dissertation on “the representation of black women in Golden Age pornography” (if that alone doesn’t make you want to check out her article, I don’t know what will, lol). I don’t really think the “pussy” issue is one of intersectionality, though.

    @Kaetrin: One of the most eye-rolling moments for me from Mystery Man was when Gwen commented that she wished she had edited the Rock Chick books. Oh, that was flinch-inducing in so many ways!

    @Maya: Ashley is a wildly successful author who went from self-publishing (and selling tons of) her books to being picked up by Grand Central, who has re-released most(?) of her older books (more than 20, IIRC), with some welcome editing, and is editing and publishing her new books. Motorcycle Man is probably her best-known book, and she has also written a series of books — the Rock Chick books — that even she has admitted are inspired by the Stephanie Plum books (for me they feel kind of like Ranger and Morelli fan fic).

    @Lia: I completely understand being personally uncomfortable with certain books. You should be able to read and write the kind of books that you are comfortable with, and I appreciate your convictions about wanting what you write to be a positive portrayal of and for women.

    Where I differ from you is in believing that there’s a universal calculation we can apply that will yield a consistent answer for every reader and every book.

    For example, I believe that every reader has a line for every issue across which characters and books can’t go. But I don’t think that line is related to what they would put up with in their real personal life. I think readers consume texts for many reasons, and that there can be a myriad of experiences a reader can have that do not entail feeling that certain things are being idealized.

    Which is why I think it’s important for these discussions to happen. But at the same time, I think our interpretations of books are themselves *conclusions* — which means that we’ve taken the raw data of the text, mixed with with our own perceptions, values, subconscious dynamics, experiences, etc. and come up with a meaning/effect/judgment. And in many cases, those conclusions are going to be open to debate.

    Beyond that, let’s say a book overtly uses something we all find repulsive — rape, for example. Like Anna Campbell’s Claiming the Courtesan, where Verity tells Justin, ‘dude, you raped me,’ and it’s pretty impossible not to agree. Or Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold, which has a number of really troubling sexual force scenes in the opening chapters of the book. IMO there’s a second level of analysis that occurs there, which is the analysis of: is this book glorifying rape and violence against women? THAT, IMO, is a much, much more difficult question to answer in any universal way. I have my own theory about sexual force in Romance (http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/sexual-force-and-reader-consent-in-romance/), one that is connected to some of what I know about the sexual rape fantasy. That is an incredibly complicated fantasy, and even a significant percentage of women who have been violently raped still enjoy rape fantasy. Because in the sexual fantasy, the woman is in control — it’s HER fantasy, and she’s basically in charge of her own submission, so to speak. Nancy Friday has done a lot of research on these fantasies, and she’s got a substantially developed theory about it in terms of women feeling overwhelmed with responsibility in their lives and needing the fantasy of letting go. Whether or not you accept her theory, the ubiquity of rape fantasy among women is pretty compelling.

    So what if the reader is that same woman, and reading these books is a way for her to experience the fantasy while remaining in control? What if reading these books makes women feel like they can explore these incredibly scary things in a fictional environment. Or maybe it’s cathartic for them to read these types of contentious relationships. Maybe it’s a symbolic pleasure they get, in the same way that reading about the solving of a murder can create a sense of emotional justice. Ditto the IMO incredibly popular fantasy of vigilante justice you see in genre fiction.

    I was thinking the other day about how I way prefer the overt sparring between Ashley’s protagonists to, say, the way the heroines in many Susan Elizabeth Phillips books are humiliated, often by other women, and beaten down by their community and by circumstances that it’s like they’ve bottomed out by the time they get their happy ending. That’s personally disturbing to me, and yet Phillips is often praised for having strong heroines and writing “feminist” books. Or when we talk about how women value themselves, I find it more troubling when a heroine is valued for her virginity than when she has multiple sexual partners. And yet the Romance genre often privileges virginity over experience. And yet I remember talking with an author about this who indicated that her own first sexual experience was so disappointing, that she likes to read and write heroines who have their first — wonderful — experience with the hero. So that’s her fantasy, and I don’t think it’s coming from a place of “women should be virgins.”

    FWIW, 50 Shades is not my thing, either, but I do think the fact that it’s gotten so many women to publicly talk about their sexual desires and fantasies is actually pretty empowering. And I never would have predicted that from reading the book myself, so I’m pretty wary of characterizing it as anti-feminist or pro-abuse. In fact, I think that book may be a good demonstration of how Romance doesn’t necessarily translate into ‘what the reader finds romantic’ or ‘what the reader idealizes.’ Sometimes maybe it’s ‘what this book provoked in the reader,’ which can be pretty unexpected, IMO.

    @Zoe York: The Gamble is probably my favorite Ashley book. I love that Nina out-earns Max and that she has such a wonderful, close relationship with her mother. And I think that book’s handling of suicide is really fantastic. Also, that book is my go-to example of how a so-called “domineering” hero isn’t necessarily trying to make the heroine someone else. In fact, the argument they have about her contributing to the house and the land was so telling, because Max actually comes back in a while and apologizes to Nina and tells him that she was right and he was wrong. And I love that neither of them mellows, and that they both really like the fire in their interactions.

    @Maili: How would you compare that with traditionally male-oriented genre fiction? Western, thrillers (James Bond for example), etc.?

    This is a fantastic question, Maili, and one I don’t really have a good answer to. I would definitely say that there is an extreme element to many of these books, but I think in many of them they start with a sense of power being vested within the male protagonist, which sets up a very different dynamic. You can even see the roots of this in the captivity narratives written by men — they have a whole different series of cultural assumptions and entitlements that do have an effect on the narratives. But I need to think more about how this manifests in the genres that evolve from those narratives.

    It’s also important to note that, possibly, lack of traditional power negotiation may be the reason why BL manga and M/M Romance are so popular with female readers and authors. Doesn’t this suggest that as a whole, there is an awareness of that in traditional female fiction, which could prompt some to turn away from Mainstream Romance towards M/M Romance? Ironically or not, it does swap a set of problematic issues with another set of problematic issues, but this time, a typical (female) reader isn’t directly affected, which is probably why it works for some.

    I think the m/m issue is very relevant here, but it’s also so complicated in and of itself that it would require its whole series. And I’m not sure I’d be the one to write it, because I just haven’t worked on m/m with the same depth and breadth that I have m/f Romance. Although I do not believe that m/m is necessarily more progressive, more inclusive, or less patriarchal and even heteronormative, as strange as that may sound (e.g. do m/m books that basically replace the m/f couple with two men simply reproduce the dominant power structure or do they challenge it?)

    @Rei: He might have listened to her and enjoyed her attitude, and he might even have apologised to her for some things at some times, but my reading of it was that he always came up as the boss.

    In what sense do you think that Tack always come up as “the boss”?

    @Shelley: I have found I will start a new extreme romance when I’m in a particularly bad mood and am not in the mood for a bunch of touchy/feely crap. I don’t know if the OTT alpha male bullshit and ensuing fireworks with female (or male) protagonist somehow appeases my foul mood or what, like maybe I got to go a couple of rounds without getting beat up?

    I’d characterize this as something closer to catharsis than romantic ideation, and I think it’s a good example of how readers don’t have to read Romance because they’re looking to for an idealized romantic experience. I definitely enjoy some of Ashley’s books because of the overt sparring between the protagonists, because with it all out in the open, there’s no hidden agendas with either of them. It feels emotionally honest to me, which I appreciate sometimes. I also love the fact that Ashley gives her heroines strong female friendships, since I dislike the trend of isolating the female heroine that seems so endemic to Romance sometimes.

  39. Shelley
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 09:05:45

    @Janet/Robin:

    “I’d characterize this as something closer to catharsis than romantic ideation, and I think it’s a good example of how readers don’t have to read Romance because they’re looking to for an idealized romantic experience. ”

    Thanks for putting this the way I should have because you’re right, it is cathartic in a way. Usually when I’m done with the dark I’m more than ready for something sweet and silly and romantic. It is definitely a purge of sorts.

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