Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Take the Long Way Home

I had initially planned to jump right into late 20th century Romance novels and their reliance/reflection on captivity narratives, but since it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve posted, I realized that I needed to sit down and catch myself up. And that turned into this catching up post. I apologize in advance if this is repetitive.

In the meantime, too, I came across this post by Mala Bhattacharjee on the issue of reader responses to problematic tropes in the genre, specifically the impulse to conflate personal responses to a text with the larger political issues it may represent. While I don’t necessarily agree with Bhattacharjee’s characterization of some of the books and tropes she discusses, right now I want to focus on this part of her argument:

 “It’s not anti-feminist if I like it” seems to be the subtext. “It’s not misogynist if it turns my crank. It’s not problematic if I pretend it’s a guilty pleasure.”

I think that shortchanges deeper explorations of women’s media and shuts down a lot of potentially interesting discussion of narrative tropes and kinks. It also creates an imbalance, a hierarchy, between pseudo-intellectual readers and those who just read for pleasure and don’t turn a critical eye to every book: “I can read and enjoy the Greek billionaire ordering the virgin around because I took three Women’s Studies classes in college and donate money to RAINN. I’m not That Reader.” Oh, yes, you are. Own it. And talk about it. Don’t pretend the modern-day romance reader is any more liberated/aware/superior than the first person who got tingly when a pirate ravished an unwilling maiden.

If it’s anti-feminist and you like it, talk about it. If it turns your crank, let’s examine why. If it’s problematic, don’t excuse it away.

One of the reasons I wanted to write this series is that I so often find myself struggling with my own responses to Romance novels. On the one hand, I know that the genre is built on one of the most socially traditional foundations: white, Western, heterosexual marriage. There is a legitimate argument to be made that even flipping the paradigm (m/m Romance, for example), does not actually subvert it, but merely makes the boundaries of social conservatism more inclusive. On the other hand, regardless of the broader institutional politics, there are specific textual moments that seem to contravene the more conservative leanings of the genre, even rupturing and reworking relative hierarchies and negotiations of social power. And rarely do I think it possible to reconcile these levels in a nice easy verbal equation. Instead, I think there is a basic tension that mirrors the constant tension we, as individuals, have with our social institutions (how they define us, how we resist, whether we can be/are successful, a certain level of conformity as the basis of coherent community, etc.). And frankly, that’s one of the things that makes this whole genre so interesting to me.

Novels like The Sheik provide a means to both idealize and critique romantic relationships and the social institutions created to sustain and reproduce them. Hull’s Diana finds her home society provincial and limiting. She seeks her freedom in the desert, only to find herself taken captive. Her physical captivity eventually gives way to a kind of emotional captivity as she finds herself falling in love with Ahmed, who is himself changed as he falls from lust into love with Diana. Together, Ahmed and Diana ideally create a new kind of home, a hybrid cultural space that must be distinguished from the concept of home each had before they fell in love.

For the traditional captivity narrative, an “ideal” HEA is one in which the captive is redeemed, returned to his or her culture, and resumes life unaffected. This rarely happened, of course, and the very existence of the narrative makes it impossible to erase or deny the experience of cultural disruption. No matter how overt the political agenda of the captivity narrative, the individual experience of the captive always brings into question that agenda (and vice versa).

One of my favorite aspects of the comments on my last post is the great recommendations people had for novels and novelists that might qualify as the venerated “first” genre Romance novel. Although some, including Pamela Regis, offer up Samuel Richardson’s 18th C Pamela as the first Romance novel, I would argue that genre Romance as we know it is essentially a 20th Century phenomenon, a reflection of literary modernism’s own preoccupation with the role of the individual within social institutions, and the simultaneous rejection of tradition and a clinging to the past. I also think genre Romance is the invention of the female imagination, and I do not mean that in an airy, dismissive, or essentialist way, but as a reflection of the way in which Romance privileges the female point of view, even, and perhaps especially, when it represents the masculinity of the hero. Again, this dynamic can be read as simultaneously liberating and subjugating, a celebration of the heroine’s individual happiness, which is in part secured through her relationship to a man (and this is not even touching the extent to which the couple still belongs to a ruling class and/or colonizing culture).

So why is all this important? Because, as Bhattacharjee points out, there is the constant tension between judgment of reader tastes and counter-judgment, between the question of whether Romance perpetuates our most reactionary social ideas or challenges them, and the extent to which the reader’s personal reaction determines them to be “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” Pam Rosenthal characterizes this tension in herself as one between “the reality-based commitments of a progressive and the fantasy-driven intuitions of a romantic.” But I would place this beyond the realm of politics; that is, it’s not simply about being a “good feminist,” because the genre reflects a wide diversity of social and political values, and people rarely, if ever, hold completely consistent values and ideas.

Regardless of one’s social politics, the same basic questions persist: what does it mean to enjoy rape fantasy? Is that a way of excusing real life rape? What does it mean to enjoy reading about imaginary sheiks and Indian braves? Does that mean one isn’t sensitive to racial hegemony and cultural imperialism/colonialism? What does it mean that the genre is primarily white, Western, and heterosexual? Are we segregating one’s right to romantic love and happiness? How do we reconcile some of our personal tastes with our political values?

I agree with Bhattacharjee about the need to “own” (I might say embrace) our personal tastes, but I think we have to do so without the guarantee of ever fully reconciling the individual and institutional levels. Pam Rosenthal explains this process of negotiation a little differently than Bhattacharjee, saying that the space between one’s politics and one’s personal fantasies is

Discursive in the sense of disavowing a straight line of evolving political correctness from “was blind” to “now I see.” Inclusive not so much to embrace the more violent fantasies, but to understand that their initial form might be a necessarily crude way to allow certain images onto the stage of the genre in the first place. And inclusive so as not to need to distance ourselves from them – as though we were never anything but horrified by them –; in a kind of panicked rush to pretend we’ve always known what we’ve learned yesterday and are only fully coming to understand today.

Variation upon variation of these fantasies, played out in different ways, different extremes, from different perspectives, and with different outcomes, creates a safe space in which we can vicariously experience what may be most horrific to us in real life, most antithetical to the social or political values we believe we possess, and puzzling in regard to conflicting impulses we may have about what we want and where we fit in the world (let alone how certain values are reproduced and how we may or may not contribute to that).

The questing aspect of courtship both promises the safety of home and disrupts its previous form, ideally offering a newer, “better” version of that construct. To read Romance is to be engaged in these journeys as an interested observer — emotionally engaged but physically removed (and therefore safe). It is a compelling and critical element of the relationship between reader and text, and one that I think explains the deep trust readers need to form with Romance novels to find them satisfying, even if they do not initially seem safe.

And yes, I realize that reading the genre is not always (or ever) a self-consciously intellectual exercise. But this does not mean that these dynamics aren’t relevant to every individual who reads in the genre, nor does it mean these issues aren’t being contemplated by every reader, even if that contemplation exists primarily on an experiential level of the text, which is itself the product of a somewhat dualistic perspective.

Romance, beyond its focus on a romantic relationship, is also very much preoccupied with the relationship between the individual and society, between freely chosen love and social obligation, between personal aspirations and social roles. For example, there’s the young couple who have to fight a despotic parent and imposed arranged marriage for their happiness. There’s the woman who defies society’s expectations of a proper lady, but who is able to have a greater share of happiness (and often wealth) than those who would ostracize and judge her. There’s the man who believes that he will never be “brought low” by love who ends up worshipping the very type of woman he believed was beneath or a threat to him. Even in the most traditional scenarios there is the possibility of subversion, just as even in the most progressive scenarios – the man who defies society’s expectation of heterosexual marriage to find lasting happiness and love with another man – there is a repetition of that fundamental genre conservatism (e.g. does marriage as an institution become more progressive when it’s extended to same sex couples?).

Marriage of convenience; amnesia; straight out captivity; road trip under duress; romantic suspense heroine in peril, etc. — whether it is the hero or the heroine or both, there is often some type of force exerted on the lovers in such a way that it ruptures an existing sense of reality, identity, or belonging, in just such a way that it allows two individuals to become a unit (whether through HEA marriage of HFN commitment). So as we talk about force, particularly about the uses of force in the genre, I think it’s important to note that there is often at least one element of violence in the romantic journey of the lovers, whether it’s the defiance of a social expectation (the heroine will marry the man her father dictates) or the restructuring of personal identity (the widowed heroine who believes that she will never love again), and in the most extreme cases, this force can be exerted in ways that we might recognize as dangerous, unwelcome, terrifying, abusive, or antithetical to the values of respectful romantic love. And yet, these are often the stories that become the most popular, the most re-written, the most remembered, the most loved, and the most hated.

Why? What I want to show next week is how it’s often these stories that push everything to the edge – the reactionary and progressive elements simultaneously – thereby reaching out to a very wide range of readers along the social and political spectrum, generating the greatest conflict and the most dynamic space between the romantic ideal and the social reality, and marrying (owning!) what we love and hate most in the genre in an unapologetically over the top (thus my term “Extreme Romance”) way.

 

 

 

 

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!

26 Comments

  1. Patricia Eimer
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 07:16:07

    Interesting post! Especially the section on the division between what we enjoy reading at a personal level as fantasy and what we feel about the behaviors idealized in some tropes as a society.

  2. Isobel Carr
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 09:30:21

    I’m really curious to read next week’s post, as “Extreme Romance” does not tend to work for me (and that’s an understatement). I’m usually left feeling baffled by just what people are responding to when I attempt to read books by J.R. Ward or Kristen Ashley or even E.L. James.

  3. Sunita
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 10:21:04

    There is a legitimate argument to be made that even flipping the paradigm (m/m Romance, for example), does not actually subvert it, but merely makes the boundaries of social conservatism more inclusive.

    Thanks for this. In one sentence you’ve encapsulated something I’ve been grappling with since I started reading m/m. I don’t have a good answer, but this formulation helps me think more clearly about it.

  4. AJH
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 12:36:36

    I’m still paddling in the shallows of the genre, but I just wanted to say: this is fascinating and I loved it. I seem to be colliding with a lot of problematic tropes at the moment, and I’m genuinely rather at loss how to, err, parse them – so this has given me a lot to think about.

  5. Katie
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 12:41:38

    I have a head cold and cannot respond to this properly, but I am so intrigued by the idea that social expectations do a sort of narrative violence that’s mirrored structurally by interpersonal violence in the text and that the heroine has to navigate those poles. Also your commentary on the tension between the individual and the generic, attempting to maintain the complexity within each text while also getting a handle on which the genre is doing, is so well taken. Thanks again!

  6. Ridley
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 12:45:54

    Maybe this is off-topic, but I was bemused by Jessica Luther’s essay suggesting a group of feminist romances given her critical take on Filipovic and Harding saying that a wife taking her husband’s surname is patriarchal. Why would romances become feminist by scoring points in a sort of “feminist choices” rubric, but people would not?

    I think what Bhattacharjee hits on is a reflection of women and feminism at large. If you, rightly, in my view, point to how taking a husband’s name is patriarchal you’ll get the same kind of resistance as if you pointed to how forced seduction is a manifestation of rape culture: “I’m a feminist, and I changed my name/love dark erotica, therefore it’s not problematic/is feminist.”

    I don’t really have the vocabulary to neatly describe why this strikes me as the wrong way to look at things, but I do. For one, we live in a patriarchal society. Co-opting patriarchy to make it work for you is often the sensible decision. You don’t lose feminism hit points for doing what you need to do to navigate an unequal system. I think the same idea applies to books. If a book hitches its wagon to rape culture to explore the heroine’s sexuality, so be it.

    Just like how a feminist taking her husband’s name doesn’t make the choice feminist, a feminist enjoying rape fantasy romance doesn’t make the theme un-problematic. This is why I prefer “patriarchal” to “anti-feminist” and “offensive” or “problematic” to “harmful.” Women can’t choose their way to liberation any more than they can keep themselves down by enjoying certain themes. At the same time it’s important to talk about the problematic underpinnings of choices and themes so we can erode the power they hold over us.

    That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

  7. Joanna Chambers
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 16:09:50

    Janet, thank you. What a wonderful essay, rich with ideas that have been plaguing me for years. Mostly I want to go away and think about this. However, one thing that occurs to me right now is that, when I was properly blogging, I was always trying to *nail* the reader experience in the sense of identifying the nature of the reactions I was having to the books I read, identifying the sources of the delight (and sometimes, disgust). And this often involved squaring my reactions to the book with my beliefs. Or not being able to square them. I’m not sure that, in my case, I can put this down to me wanting explore things that scare me in a safe way (much as that explanation might appeal). What I can, however, say is that these conflicts have given rise to some deep thinking on my part about issues that may not have occurred otherwise, and interestingly, if anything they have probably resulted in a deepening of the strength of my original views rather than leading me to change those views. Which perhaps is counter-intuitive.

  8. Dabney
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 19:26:04

    @Ridley:

    Co-opting patriarchy to make it work for you is often the sensible decision. You don’t lose feminism hit points for doing what you need to do to navigate an unequal system.

    Can everyone co-opt the patriarchy equally or fairly? Is gender the most defining aspect of power in your unequal system? I’m not challenging your statement–I’m curious as to how broadly it may be applied.

  9. Raven Ames
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 19:33:13

    “It is a compelling and critical element of the relationship between reader and text, and one that I think explains the deep trust readers need to form with Romance novels to find them satisfying, even if they do not initially seem safe.”
    I have been reading Romance since I was a pre-teen and, for the most part like that pre-teen, I simply accept and love the world of Romances, but this sentence I had to go back to and think about and (obviously) write about. Do I trust Romance novels? In the real word, trust is my issue and I have yet to come to a definition of trust that works for me without scaring me, but I actually do trust the text, I trust books in a fundamental way that has nothing to do with trusting people. Which is why when an author fundamentally alters a character in a way that simply isn’t in keeping with the character I have to break up with said author – she has betrayed my trust in the character and I get all kinds of real-world angry about that.
    And back to the topic…
    “Regardless of one’s social politics, the same basic questions persist: what does it mean to enjoy rape fantasy?”
    I don’t have an answer for this one, well, not one that’s comfortable anyway, but I just read a book in which the hero (who is much more of an anti-hero) leaves the heroine handcuffed to the outside of a car, in the middle of the night, pouring rain after he’s undone all the buttons on her blouse and walks away. She challenged him intellectually and he wins by physically dominating and humiliating her. Part of me is yelling you motherfucker, but part of me gets a thrill out of putting myself in her shoes in an imaginary way. It’s simultaneously hot and creepy even though the hero reveals to the heroine that he has left her the key to the handcuffs and the discomfort of that lasts until he reveals to the reader, not the heroine, that he never left her at all, just let her think he did. This hero got under my skin because he’s brilliant and ruthless and a total bastard – for which he has some pretty damn good reasons, and in the imaginary world, I dig that. In the real world – oh hell no.
    So that’s my thought-jumbled response to this thought-provoking essay. Thanks for challenging the blithe acceptance I bring to reading Romance. Can’t wait for the next installment!

  10. Raven Ames
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 19:45:23

    Initial response:
    “It is a compelling and critical element of the relationship between reader and text, and one that I think explains the deep trust readers need to form with Romance novels to find them satisfying, even if they do not initially seem safe.”
    I have been reading Romance since I was a pre-teen and, for the most part like that pre-teen, I simply accept and love the world of Romances, but this sentence I had to go back to and think about and (obviously) write about. Do I trust Romance novels? In the real word, trust is my issue and I have yet to come to a definition of trust that works for me without scaring me, but I actually do trust the text, I trust books in a fundamental way that has nothing to do with trusting people. Which is why when an author fundamentally alters a character in a way that simply isn’t in keeping with the character I have to break up with said author – she has betrayed my trust in the character and I get all kinds of real-world angry about that.

  11. Raven Ames
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 20:15:31

    Part 2: “…what does it mean to enjoy rape fantasy?”
    I just read a book in which the (anti)hero leaves the heroine handcuffed to the outside of a car, in the middle of the night, pouring rain after he’s undone all the buttons on her blouse and walks away. She challenged him intellectually and he wins by physically dominating and humiliating her. Part of me is yelling you motherfucker, but part of me gets a thrill out of putting myself in her shoes in an imaginary way. It’s simultaneously hot and creepy even though the hero reveals to the heroine that he has left her the key to the handcuffs and the discomfort of that lasts until he reveals to the reader, not the heroine, that he never left her at all, just let her think he did. This hero got under my skin because he’s brilliant and ruthless and a total bastard – for which he has some pretty damn good reasons, and in the imaginary world, I dig that. In the real world – oh hell no.
    So that’s my thought-jumbled response to this thought-provoking essay. Thanks for challenging the blithe acceptance I bring to reading Romance.

  12. Raven Ames
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 22:10:40

    so sorry for all the responses! It might be my pc – but none of my responses showed up, so of course I kept re-submitting them.

  13. Robin/Janet
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 22:18:57

    @Raven Ames: I think they’re all here. Let me know if you still can’t see them after a hard refresh of the site!

  14. Dabney
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 07:15:41

    @Raven Ames: What book is this?

  15. Ridley
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 11:49:46

    @Dabney: Co-opt might be the wrong word, actually.

    Basically, I see things like the popularity of taking a man’s name in a hetero marriage or staying home with children as symptoms rather than causes of a patriarchal society. Women aren’t oppressed because they choose these things. Women choose these things because an oppressive system pressures them to. And it’s not just gender, no, it’s a mess of kyriarchal pressure. Many women would like to work while raising children, but US economic pressures (no paid maternity leave, no mandated sick pay, no subsidized day care, no paternity leave) as well as gender pressures (women are the better nurturers, a man who watches his kids is “babysitting” and/or “whipped,” women still earn 77% of what men do for the same work) make staying home the only sensible decision.

    I don’t even know if I’m answering your question. Basically, I don’t think you have to wear knee-high pleather boots and a flimsy minidress to talk about how slut-shaming and body-policing is problematic. Dressing modestly to evade judgement doesn’t have to imply immodesty is bad and doesn’t mean you’re part of the problem.

  16. Raven Ames
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 16:17:48

    @Dabney: Carolyn McCray”s Plain Jane – advance warning, the violence is graphic.

  17. Dabney
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 18:51:31

    @Ridley: I know this is tangential, but thank you for your post. I’d never heard the word kyriarchal before and have spent the past hour reading about it. Now I’m wondering why I never heard it before. Is it used only in certain circles? Academia? What is the origin of the wordpart “kyria”?

  18. Sunita
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 19:05:12

    Not Ridley, but it is relatively new. I’ve seen it a fair amount in internet discourse, especially in LiveJournal conversations.

    I haven’t seen it used in the parts of academia I read most but I’d be surprised if it isn’t common now.

  19. Ridley
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 19:23:17

    I got the word from internet feminists like Shakesville’s Melissa McEwan.

    Shakesville (formerly Shakespeare’s Sister) is the blog that set off the Penny Arcade Dickwolves Debacle. That’s how I started following them.

  20. Dabney
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 19:26:12

    @Sunita: @Ridley: So how would you define it?

  21. Em
    Apr 11, 2013 @ 01:35:19

    My love of romance novels makes me quite uncomfortable really, particularly in the last year or so when I discovered Kristen Ashley and all things alpha.

    I started reading romance when I was about 14- I went to a catholic girls school and my best friend and I shared a locker filled with some truly dreadful books (Jane Feather, LOL, the first one that went around our friendship group the heroine was 16 and the hero was a complete douche who rescued her from her beating, raping, murderous husband … sex ed in a Catholic girls school ladies!) and developed my love of NICE books. I loved all the Julia Quinns, the Susan Elizabeth Phillips and the Lisa Kleypas. I loved the idea of commitment especially as I grew older and commitment and trust became more difficult for me because of life’s rougher edges.

    I loved the idea of yielding control and this is the bit that worries me the most. That’s the books I gravitate towards, alphas who make the heroine submit whether in a D/s relationship or just in general. WTF? I was reading The Female Eunuch when I was 15, I did do some gender studies at uni, I consider myself a feminist and in my daily life I try to be a strong feminist young woman. If someone in real life spoke to me like these ‘alphas’ I would think they were mentally imbalanced.

    So why am I reading it? Why do I like it? The worst I’ve read was Consequences which was a captive narrative with a rapist hero who I HATED but also liked, I liked the book. I think it’s troubling but yeah, there it is. At my most guilty moments I wonder if it is subconscious for some women? If we secretly deep down want patriarchy and to be controlled? I don’t think I do. But why am I reading about it?

  22. Aisha
    Apr 11, 2013 @ 04:00:40

    “Variation upon variation of these fantasies, played out in different ways, different extremes, from different perspectives, and with different outcomes, creates a safe space in which we can vicariously experience what may be most horrific to us in real life, most antithetical to the social or political values we believe we possess, and puzzling in regard to conflicting impulses we may have about what we want and where we fit in the world (let alone how certain values are reproduced and how we may or may not contribute to that).”

    @Em: I think Robin’s point (quoted above) is apposite. But I also think (and my thoughts around this are raw and pretty unformed, but I hope it makes some sense at least) that perhaps the popularity of this extreme romance (as well as dystopian YA and probably other sub-genres) is that it is a way of establishing a form of control over an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world. I referred in a comment on a different thread to Gramsci’s point about the emergence of morbid symptoms in times of extreme social change. We are arguably in the midst of such a period, with the shift to a post-industrial network society (ala Castells) in which multiple forms of precariousness (ranging from Bourdieu’s to Standing’s more recent understanding of the concept) abound. Some concrete examples of these changes are that on the geo-political level, we are witnessing the shift away from traditional centres of power towards ‘emerging powers’; on the macro-economic level, cycles of boom and bust are speeding up and the effects of busts are stronger, deeper and longer-lasting; on the meso and micro levels there is the increase in informal and casualised employment/underemployment, increasing levels of household debt, and the continuing erosion of social protections/assistance (where these existed at all). And of course, there are also the planetary challenges of climate change, the rise of social networking (including as a mobilising tool as witnessed in the Arab Spring uprisings), and the threats to individual and collective safety of terrorism and the so called war on terror. These changes (and yes, I may be confusing cause and effect here somewhat, but effects can and do in turn become causes), like others before, lead to social ruptures and tensions and, as Gramsci points out, the emergence of morbid symptoms (but not only these I think, there are countermovements that emerge as well), one of which is extreme violence against women. There have been recent cases in India, South Africa and Brazil of exceptionally brutal attacks on woman (leading Avaaz for example to launch a global campaign to “end the war on women”). And as we all know this is only the tip of the iceberg.

    So, to cut a very long story short, perhaps the popularity of these types of stories can also be seen as a way of facing the worst that we can imagine, and reclaiming control in whatever small way by doing so. Or is that maybe a too ambitious reading?

  23. Sunita
    Apr 11, 2013 @ 06:52:59

    It’s patriarchy plus intersectionality, more or less. Here’s a quick definition: http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2008/05/01/word-of-the-day-kyriarchy/

  24. Dabney
    Apr 11, 2013 @ 08:14:58

    @Sunita: Thanks. I love learning new words.

  25. Ridley
    Apr 11, 2013 @ 10:36:23

    @Aisha:

    So, to cut a very long story short, perhaps the popularity of these types of stories can also be seen as a way of facing the worst that we can imagine, and reclaiming control in whatever small way by doing so.

    That sounds right to me. Romance is a fairly melodramatic genre and I think reading themes literally is the wrong way to understand the their popularity.

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