Romance and the Boundaries of the Self
Today’s guest opinion is brought to you by Jessica from Racy Romance Reviews. Jessica started blogging in 2008 and has provided some great reviews as well as thoughtful commentary. She first came to my attention by Janine linking to one of Jessica’s posts. (Word of Mouth, isn’t it grand?). Jessica started reading romances in 2007 after a decade of not reading fiction. She, like us, is the typical romance reader which is to say she’s not typical at all. She’s a self described feminist, a Ph.D., and most of all, a lover of the romance book.
Romance is defined by its exploration and celebration of romantic love. That said, I’ve been surprised and delighted by the number of other important themes that are explored in the genre. I think it behooves romance readers to discuss these non-romantic themes, because romance writers tend to bring a unique focus to these themes, and because highlighting the ways that romance authors approach nonromantic themes can help to forge links between a belittled genre and more respectable ones.
Consider the theme of selfhood in romance. In some ways, every single romance is about selfhood, since the romantic ideal says that until we meet our counterpart, we cannot truly be our best selves, our complete selves. What’s unique about this, is that the self is defined as fundamentally relational: people are not silos, who choose to enter relationships as they might choose to engage, or not, in hobbies, but rather, people can only be who they are with relations of the right sort with other people. I personally believe that the valorization of this relational way of viewing the self is a key source of the feminist potential of romance, but I also think it gives romance, as a genre, some unique and important things to say about questions of selfhood and personal identity per se. I have been amazed at the number of romances I have read, across all the subgenres, that deal centrally and directly with the metaphysical question of what is self and what is nonself.
What would it take for you to become another, different person? First, consider loss: is there one essential thing, say, your memories, or your physical body, or your career, that defines you? What could you lose and still be you?
Or we can come at this in terms of gain: what new material or spiritual/nonmaterial substance could you take in, while still being you? And would you consider this new addition "really you"?
Some characters are so identified with a job or skill that to lose it is to become a different person. In Suzanne Brockmann’s The Unsung Hero, Tom, a Navy SEAL commander, has sustained a head injury that makes him distrust his own judgment: he’s not sure about what he sees, or about how to assign meaning to events. For Tom, this loss of his mental faculties is not just potentially career ending, but self-ending as well. It’s heartbreaking to follow his thoughts along a route that always stops dead at his possible resignation: he can’t imaginatively project himself into a future where he doesn’t, in some important sense, exist. But Tom’s growing relationship with Kelly provides a tether to which he can hold while exploring these uncharted waters.
For others, it’s the loss of cognitive capacities themselves that threatens identity. Laura Kinsale’s Flowers From the Storm also explores the impact of brain injury when the hero, Christian, sustains a cerebral hemorrhage that leaves him unable to express himself in speech. The "Mathematical Duke" becomes vulnerable, frustrated, terrified, and dependent. Is he still the same man? It’s his relationship with the heroine that helps provide the bridge between his old self and new.
In Charlaine Harris’s fourth Sookie Stackhouse book, Dead to the World, vampire boss Eric Northman loses his memory. With his memories, Eric is confident, ambitious, ruthless and selfish. Without them, he’s still got that innate confidence, but it’s layered over with fear and a new sense of empathy for others brought on by his precarious existence. Is it still Eric? This question is crucial for Sookie, whose attraction to him has become safe for her at the same time it represents taking unfair advantage of him.
Many paranormal romances utilize demons and other supernatural forces to explore the same theme. In J. R. Ward’s Lover Eternal, Rhage, a vampire, has been cursed. He has a demon "inside" him, which emerges in moments of intense emotion, transforming him into a violent dragon. The dragon is totally "other", and Rhage is not self-conscious when he is in dragon form. He was responsible for being cursed, so is he responsible for the dragon’s behavior? His relationship with the Mary is crucial in helping him to reconcile vampire and dragon by claiming the dragon as a part of his self.
Ward’s vampires are a separate species from humans, but in other paranormals, the state of being a vampire itself represents an identity challenge. For a hero who was once human and is now vampire, does blood lust represent an external force? When does the "humanity" become other? After fifty years? A century?
In Linnea Sinclair’s Games of Command, Branden Kel-Paten, who is cybernetically enhanced, struggles with the attempt to determine which of his desires, feelings, and beliefs are his, and which are implants or external. It’s his love for the heroine that inspires him to try to define which parts of him are "self" and which are not.
As an aside, you might notice that all of my examples are of heroes. I had a hard time coming up with heroine examples. This might well be due to my limited exposure to romance (at only about 150 books, I’m an infant compared to the gang at DA). But since this is a letter of opinion, I’ll stick my neck out and say you’re more likely to find heroes facing these sorts of questions in romance, because it’s more common for men to define themselves in terms of isolated properties, like skills or vocations, than women, who are more likely to define themselves in terms of their relationships (and I don’t have space for all the usual caveats, but, believe me, they are there in my mind). That the heroines bring the heroes around to this view of personal identity is, in my opinion, an important source of female empowerment in romance.
I think the explorations of selfhood in the books noted above (and the many others I could name) constitute an important engagement with both an enduring literary themeand some of its very contemporary manifestations. This brings me to the third reason I think it’s good to highlight these not-directly-romantic themes. An exclusive focus on romance as the champion of love and sexuality contributes to the idea that romances are about escape and escape only. I can’t speak for others, but I have found my romance reading to be very relevant to real life issues and challenges.
To use just one example: I work part time in a hospital, and I was recently having a bit of a debate with a cardiologist who refused to deactivate a patient’s pacemaker, despite the fact that the patient was near death and on "comfort measures". The pacer, he argued, had been implanted a decade ago. It was inside her body and now "a part of her", and to turn it off would be akin to removing a kidney that had been transplanted a decade ago. As he was talking, Branden Kel-Paten flashed into my head. Kel-Paten had been a Biocybe for years, but had never accepted his enhancements as fully "self" – not even the cognitive ones, which you would think would be harder to reject. Just because something has been inside you for a long time, doesn’t mean it is you. Is romance escape? It sure didn’t feel that way when I was standing in an ICU having this discussion.
We’re faced with lots of biomedical challenges like this today: outliving our cognitive capacities as dementia sets in, or even our organic capacities as we are sustained by machines. We will soon have new reproductive options that will create identity issues for our children (who are your parents if it took five people to make you: the sperm donor, the egg donor, the surrogate mother, and the two infertile people who commissioned you? Who are your parents if you are a clone?). With our PDAs and smart phones, and laptops and wireless connectivity everywhere, we are already cyborgs, albeit not yet with the seamless integration of the organic and the mechanized. I’d like romance to get the credit it deserves for exploring these issues of selfhood, and for doing so in a way that valorizes relationship, connection, empathy, and creativity.
And why would I care about that? Didn’t I read Jane’s Romance Apologia Scale? Yes, I read it and loved it. And while I think level 4 is the right attitudinal stance, in conclusion, I’d like to offer a feminist argument in favor of at least occasional level 3 type responses to the dismissal of romance by TPTB. First, most romance writers are women, and if romance pays worse than other genres, it’s a feminist issue to see that equity is achieved. Combating false stereotypes and insisting on the value of what’s denigrated can be one means of doing this. And second, most romance readers are women – even women who don’t read romance are associated with the genre — and the dismissal of romance is connected too closely for my comfort to the dismissal of women per se to allow it to stand. Respect and self-respect may seem ephemeral, but they are important bases of a good human life, and in this case they are closely related to the material bases for such a life. For me, those are good enough reasons to keep trying to make the case for romance.
Thanks so much to Jane and the gang at Dear Author for inviting me to do this, and for those of you still with me at the end, thanks for reading!